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Past, present and poetry – ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline’

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Past, present and poetry – ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline’ (photo courtesy of Théâtre du Rêve)

BANGOR/ATLANTA – A lovely tale of one woman’s life as reflected through a poetic namesake is currently available from Penobscot Theatre Company.

“Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” (or, “I Am Not Evangeline”) is the latest and last installment in PTC’s ongoing Digitus Theatrum season. It’s a collaborative effort with the Atlanta-based Théâtre du Rêve, a company devoted to bringing the French language and Francophone culture to the American stage. Single household streaming tickets are available at the PTC website at www.penobscottheatre.org; the show runs through May 9.

Inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 poem “Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie,” which tells the tale of a young Acadian woman who dedicates her life to tracking down her lost love following the tragic displacement of the Acadian people at the hands of the British in the mid-18th century, “Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” is an exploration of the nature of identity, both in terms of our perception of ourselves and the perception the world has of us.

Performed in both English and French, it’s driven by a tour de force performance courtesy of Carolyn Cook, the founder and artistic director of Théâtre du Rêve, along with a handful of quietly compelling reenactments.

Eva (Cook) is a retired college professor living in Georgia, in a suburb just outside of Atlanta. She is packing up her house as she prepares to move back to Maine, where she’s originally from. In the course of that move, she finds herself with a book in her hands – Longfellow. This leads her to reflect upon “Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie,” a work with which she has long had a somewhat contentious relationship.

Why contentious? Well, Eva is of Acadian descent – her full name is actually the same as that of the titular heroine – and while she recognizes that the majority of the historical detail that Longfellow presents in the poem is true, the existence of Evangeline herself is not. She’s made-up – a fictional character. Plus, the poem was also a favorite of her late husband; he did his dissertation on Longfellow.

As she packs, Eva reminisces. She looks back upon the influences in her life, the French-speaking memeres who have their own memories of cultural erasure, speaking of having been forced to abandon the French language and customs of their youth at the behest of people and agencies who hardly have their best interests at heart.

All the while, these memories are transposed with visions drawn from the poem of Evangeline herself (Jennifer Schottstaedt), as she undertakes to track down her lost love, journeying many miles over many years in an effort to regain what was taken from her by the cruel and unjust actions of the British – actions that led to an Acadian diaspora that tore to pieces a once-vibrant and robust culture.

We watch as Eva is slowly, inexorably overcome by the power of memory – memories of her youth, of her heritage, of her true love – and left to examine the myriad ways in which this poem (both in its truths and in its fictions) has insinuated itself into her world and worldview. She juxtaposes the life she has lived with that of the generations that came before her, as well as with the fictional life lived by Longfellow’s heroine.

“Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” is another compelling chapter in the story of PTC’s Digitus Theatrum. The flexibility put on display by soon-to-depart artistic director Bari Newport and the rest of the company has been wildly impressive throughout the past year; it’s a season that would never have come to pass in other circumstances, yet one that also proved to be a worthwhile and artistically rewarding addition to Penobscot Theatre history. This piece more than merits inclusion with the rest of that excellent and nontraditional work.

The best theatrical work is about people. It’s about the stories we tell … and the stories we tell ourselves. And in that respect, “Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” connects. All of us have some sort of cultural identity, though for some, our connection to that identity might be tenuous. What this piece does is dig into that notion of what it means to remember, to find ways to tie who we are today into not just who we used to be, but to those who came before us. It’s a wonderful look at the oft-invisible marks made upon us by our ancestors and the bloodlines that extend backward into the shadowy mists of the past.

Cook’s performance work is exceptional. Under the guidance of director Lauren Morris and the rest of the Théâtre du Rêve team, she creates a warm and welcoming presence. Even as she slowly succumbs to the sheer power of her feelings, the emotion never feels disingenuous or forced. Every aspect of her Eva feels truthful and nuanced, sharing an intense intimacy with the audience. Passion, humor, love, sadness – it’s all here. Combine that with the gentle beauty of the Evangeline segments – anchored with wordless grace by Schottstaedt – and you’re left with something engaging and memorable.

“Je Ne Suis Pas Evangeline” is not theatre in the traditional sense (though don’t be surprised if it makes the transition to the stage in the future – there’s a VERY good one-woman show to be made from this), but it is undeniably theatrical. It is a wonderful story with a Maine connection that brings together the past and the present in an unexpected and welcome manner, a tale of truth, fiction, identity … and the importance of remembering from whence we come.

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 April 2021 05:39

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