First Words

Wes Babcock

I’d heard some buzz about Natalie Joy Quesnel’s return to the Fringe stage in her one-woman show, First Words, and am I ever glad I got to see it’s opening performance. Quesnel has been ruminating on the events that inspired this production for more than a decade, and it’s clear that this long period of thought and development benefitted from the fine dramaturgy and direction of Emily Pearlman throughout the creative process, but from the start you know that this is Quesnel’s show.

The setting swings between the humorously anguished reminisces of the young Me at her family’s annual party memorializing the lives of her now-dead elder siblings, and the moments leading up to their death, which Me experiences from inside her domineering mother’s womb. From the first snap of a baby carrot, Quesnel captured and held her audience rapt as the chaos of a party (filtered through the eyes of a child) resolved into a poignant and emotional narrative.

For me, the play began as a bit of an exercise in putting a few disparate pieces together into a flowing story line, but only briefly. Each piece was engaging in its own right, and inspired greater investment in the whole. As the show progressed, the relationships between initially unexplained tropes clarified into a coherent and enthralling story that gained a welcome depth from the diversity of angles from which it is derived.

Quesnel’s acting was really solid, and every single movement was measured to achieve its greatest effect. I also loved the skill with which tension built up almost surreptitiously around objects and moments of significance (the letter, the party itself). By interspersing the story with a number of humorous moments that are nevertheless relevant and important to it, Quesnel manages to sneak up on the drama, making it all the more, well, dramatic. Both the obviously serious moments and those that seem (at first glance) merely humorous were really enhanced by Steven Lafond’s sound design. Beyond providing atmosphere, the audio facilitates the ability of Quesnel’s Me to summon and interact with her family’s collective memories and weave them into an engaging tale.

While I didn’t love the main set area, I appreciated its bare-bones aesthetic, and was glad for the character in the wood of the frame. At the risk of nit picking, I think the bare sticks at the back bothered me, until they were filled. Further, the realist aspect of the food tray, while serving to anchor the space to the events at the party, was almost too concrete, in contrast to the metaphoric use for which Quesnel earmarked the rest of the set and props. That said, I thought the second stage area was clever and charmingly executed; in fact, it was probably my favourite design element in the show.

Near the beginning of the show, Quesnel’s character makes the claim that “art isn’t about understanding, it’s about experience.” This production is an experience that you can’t help but understand deeply, and a must-see at the festival.


Upcoming Shows: (Venue #3: Academic Hall)

June 21 @ 23:00

June 23 @ 17:00

June 27 @ 19:30

June 28 @ 20:30

June 29 @ 15:00