The sacred and the profane:
Manon, Sandra and
the Virgin Mary
by Drew Rowsome
"Sandra the drag queen, with all her profanity, turns out to be quite holy," says John Van Burek, the translator/director of Michel Tremblay's play Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary. "It makes peoples' eyes pop."
Tremblay wrote Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary in 1977 to complete his series of groundbreaking plays le cycle des Belles-Souers. Manon is a character from Forever Yours, Marie-Lou and Sandra is the bitchy drag queen from the gay classic Hosanna,who engineered Hosanna's humiliating downfall. "Tremblay built an incredible network, a web of characters," says Van Burek. "An incredible string of plays that now sit on the shelf of Canadian classics. Then he gave these characters their moment in the sun, showing his devotion to them. After this play he began writing novels, his centre of gravity shifted, and since 1977 we never again see these characters. They disappear. This is what Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary is about, they dissolve into thin air."
Of all Tremblay's plays Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary is the least produced. "Audiences in 1979 were thrown for a loop," says Van Burek. "It's a two-hander, a single set and a wonderful vehicle for two strong actors, you'd think everyone would want to do it. He uses the most sacred images in Catholicism in a bold and provocative way. It's very poetic and very gritty, very moving and very, very funny, Tremblay at his juiciest. Where has this play been for 30 years? It's such a reminder of just how fantastic a writer Michel Tremblay is."
Presenting Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary at Buddies is ideal according to Van Burek. "It's one of my favourite theatres in the city. It's intimacy is ideal for this play. And they're certainly not timid. Brendan Healy has raised the bar artistically of what queer theatre is and can be. Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary doesn't have a traditional narrative and there has to be a desire to explore that territory. Tremblay never pulls punches. He's reduced these two down to essential elements; Manon is convinced and desperately needs to believe in God and her religion; Sandra relies on sensuality to get her through the day, that's all she has. Hosanna was raw and shocking but it's a great play. Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary doesn't rely on a nuts and bolts narrative, it's more abstract, about creativity, the power of a writer and the characters he creates."
Van Burek believes that it takes a lot to shock audiences in 2013. "We're much more blasé now and at Buddies we're in good territory. Not only is this a gorgeous, gorgeous play that all people who love good theatre and provocative writing will appreciate, you could see Sandra in the cabaret space any night of the week. We see what's purportedly a tawdry drag queen in whole new light."
Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary runs Sat, Jan 11 to Sun, Feb 2 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com