The Captivating “Vierge” Vibrates with Spiritual Energy at Factory Theatre Toronto

(L-R) JD Leslie, Shauna Thompson, Kudakwashe Rutendo, and Yvonne Addai in Factory Theatre Toronto’s Vierge. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The Toronto Theatre Review: Factory Theatre’s Vierge

By Ross

With slices of cultural religious icons hung on the wall with care, a young woman filled with optimism and divinity enters and descends into a space that doesn’t really feel owned by her, or inhabited by anyone at all really. Boxes and chairs are stacked up in the corners, keeping her company as she waits, with the audience as her companions, hoping to be the answer to someone’s prayers. Two others enter, mischievously and quietly down those stairs, surprising her as they, and another, lead her down a road that she is not quite prepared for and wasn’t expecting. They have gathered for a Young Believer’s religious group, one that will expand and contract her understanding of self, faith, her body, and the world she inhabits. They come slowly coming together, sparsely and with secret hesitation, as the new play, Vierge, written with a sharp focus on identity and conflict by Rachel Mutombo (Young People’s Antigone), finds its way forward into our hearts and souls. And it’s not one that we will easily forget, as this heartful examination of faith, community, and sex, all through the eyes of these four teenage girls, who are all, in one way or another, connected to The Republic of The Congo, having immigrated or been born in Canada by Congolese immigrant parents.

Her name, Divine Kabamba, is the most Congolese part of her, she stages, as the nervous Divine holds tight to the hope of finding a sense of belonging in this group that she has asked her Pastor to let her form and lead. Portrayed most touchingly by Shauna Thompson (Shaw Festival’s Man and Superman), she exudes discomfort inside anything outside faith-driven language, and is pushed out of her comfort zone quite quickly by the two Katende sisters; Grace, played with a powerful authenticity by Yvonne Addai (Persephone’s Pride & Prejudice), and Sarah, beautifully enlivened by JD Leslie (Canadian Stage’s Is God Is), who were the first to arrive and frighten her out of prayer. The two sisters have a way about them that, laced with the pseudo-confidence of youth and connection, fight hard against one another for reasons that will become apparent. They also lean just as hard on each other for that much-needed sense of safety and security that people of that age require to go out into the world, especially if they are newly arrived immigrants.

Shauna Thompson, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Yvonne Addai, and JD Leslie in Factory Theatre Toronto’s Vierge. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The play feels brilliantly tense and unapologetic as the three young women play with one another, trying to gain control of the broken space around them. The Canadian-born Divine struggles inside her skin, working hard to remain composed and in charge. She finally gets some sort of backward relief when the complicated Bien-Aimé Llunga, organically portrayed by Kudakwashe Rutendo (“Blackspot“), finally shows up, late but without, seemingly, a care in the world. She’s dynamically engaging, pushing and pulling on Divine in a way that makes us wonder if she is an ally or a foe. But soon the two are tight and connected. But that doesn’t make things easier on anyone in this complicated Young Believer’s group as the secrets begin to trickle out most provocatively, deepening the play in upsettingly clear sexual politics.

Directed with a powerful force by Natasha Mumba (Driftwood Trafalgar’s Balance), Vierge pushes on boundaries and sexual/social norms with a strong sense of purpose, as we connect to these young women trying to find acceptance and understanding in their sister-like bonds. Judgment and shame are thick in the air, and misogyny seeps its way into their “sing sing” gossip style of understanding, especially around the ideas of sexual interaction and condemnation. Different ideas around sin radiate out, pushing and pulling them in and around one another as they start to relieve themselves of deep shame and secrets that continue to plague how they feel about each other and their community as a whole. It’s beautifully straightforward in its delicate approach to complex situations with some secrets told that will make us collectively squirm in our seats, but that’s where the true depth of Vierge lives; in the shame and guilt that others within, what should be a supportive community can impose on and demonize its youth, especially its younger women.

Shauna Thompson, JD Leslie, and Yvonne Addai in Factory Theatre Toronto’s Vierge. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

They fight “like peacocks,” dreaming of the heat, the ease, and the familiarity of what some of them left behind, while transforming themselves before our very eyes against the sterile religious backdrop wisely created by set and props designer Rachel Forbes (Canadian Stage’s Fairview), with dynamic costuming by Joyce Padua (Factory’s Year of the Rat), well formulated lighting by Jareth Li (Shaw Festival’s Prince Caspian), and a strong sound design by Andrew Johnson (Radio INK Magazine’s, 2021 recipient of Radio’s Future African American Leaders). These young women know full well that rumors and false accusations hurt, but it doesn’t stop them from throwing them hard against one another, as we watch “truth splash all over” them drenched in spiked punch and tequila shots, creating more mess and pain than can be contained.

The play is a dynamic wonderland of fantastically orchestrated kisses of humor and heart, sliced in with a number of uncomfortable shaming shots of secrets and lies. The intensity of the transformation increases as the party and subsequent drama get volunteered up and pressed into. They try their best to be there for one another, but the pressures of Christianity, ideals around virginity, and chastity, spiked with teenage hormonal urges, make it difficult for the loving compassion we are praying for. We sit, watching the final baptismal cleansing wash over the pack, uncomfortable with their stances toward one another, while desperately hoping for a stronger unity to be found. Divine intervention is complicated and hard to grasp against all the deep-seated misogynistic views of temptation and sexual interaction. And even though the final moments rush forward feeling a tad under-cooked, the discomfort we are left with, even after all the laughs and care shown, elevates this new play, Vierge, and the team that put it all together, to an exciting level of engagement. It’s profoundly connecting and emotionally impactful, leaving me thankful to have been given a chance to sit in on this young believer’s group, even if they never got through that one biblical chapter.

Kudakwashe Rutendo and Shauna Thompson in Factory Theatre Toronto’s Vierge. Written by Rachel Mutombo. Directed by Natasha Mumba. Playing April 8-30, 2023. For information and tickets, click here. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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