Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear t-shirts, camouflage, and body armour. Some wear skirts or pants and have artistic skills that are tested by extraordinary circumstances.
Playwright Sarah Waiswisz’s Heartlines demonstrates that heroism can have unlikely beginnings. Enter Claude Cahun (née Lucy Schwob, portrayed by Margo MacDonald) and Marcel Moore (née Suzanne Malherbe, portrayed by Maryse Fernandes) — lovers, surrealists, artists, writers, and photographers. They meet as schoolgirls, becoming secret lovers in the provincial town of Nantes, France. Their respective parents are widowed and marry, making the girls stepsisters. While this gives them greater opportunity to be with each other, they still must hide their love for each other under the guise of a sisterly bond.
They escape to Paris, where they can express their sexual identities in surrealistic art, photography, literature, and theatre. They can don pants, assume masculine pseudonyms, and find welcome in Paris’s artistic community. Post-WWI Paris attracts artists from around the world. As Cahun and Moore discover, many of these artists are, like them, women, Jewish, queer, or all three. They have found their home. They get to rub shoulders with the likes of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. They revel in their freedom while trying to find success in the male-dominated field of surrealist art.
But Paris can’t protect them forever. Hitler’s Nazis gain power in Germany, soon bringing terror to Europe. Before war breaks out, the two escape to Jersey in Britain’s Channel Islands. They hide their pseudonymous identities behind skirts and appear to the locals as two middle-aged sisters with eccentric interests in the arts.
The first act feels long and is heavy on exposition and frivolity. Two privileged young women get to produce art for art’s sake in a safe but insular environment. Yet they develop skills that will become important in the second act. They advertise their art by pamphleting the public. Cahun dresses in masculine garb for her auto-photography, theatre, and vaudeville. Moore keeps her German fluent by speaking with German emigrés. Cahun and Moore both write, and Moore illustrates Cahun’s writing.
As the first act closes, Waiswisz drops two hints in dialogue: Picasso and Josephine Baker, allusions to the former’s masterpiece Guernica and the latter’s spy work in WWII. Don’t skip out after the first act. The best is yet to come.
Jersey is no sanctuary. Early in the war, Germany invades and occupies the Channel Islands. Schwob and Malherbe (using their given names) hide their sexuality and their Jewish roots from the occupiers. But their naive “art for art’s sake” sensibilities now meet the harsh realities of occupation.
As their friends begin to disappear across Europe, Schwob and Malherbe face a crisis. Is their survival sufficient resistance to Hitler? They face their fears and become a two-person propaganda machine. They translate BBC war news into German and pamphlet the German occupiers in ingenious and ever more dangerous ways. These heroes wear housewives’ scarves.
The first half of the play indulges the lovers’ pre-war naiveté. It celebrates their relationship and the way the Parisian artistic community welcomes them. There’s a particularly sensual and beautiful scene in which Moore seduces Cahun while modelling for the camera. But the hand of a dramaturg could tighten up the script and give the audience more of a sense of arc.
That said, the second half is tight. The action and tension build like a tank column coming down the road. Our heroes put aside self-indulgent things and use their honed artistic skills to sow disaffection among the young occupiers. MacDonald and Fernandes embody the fears of Schwob and Malherbe while showing how they overcome those fears to face danger. Bravura performances by both.
I would be remiss not to mention the musical support of Scottie Irving on accordion, piano, keyboard, drums, and harp. His incidental music enhances the performances with a soundscape worthy of a Hitchcock film. From freewheeling Paris to war-occupied Jersey, Irving’s sound design compliments the acting and action to a tee.
While I would wish for a tighter first half, I’m very glad to have met these two artists who put their skills to extraordinary heroic purposes. A story I’m glad that writer Waiswisz has fleshed out for MacDonald and Fernandes to present.
Heartlines by Sarah Waiswisz is playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until Sunday, April 3. Ticket prices range from $15 to $55. Showtimes and tickets are available online. The show runs 1 hour 53 minutes, plus a 21-minute intermission.