By Kevin de Vlaming

Start with mystery, seduction and an abundance of clever dialogue rife with sexual innuendo. Throw in a high-class-prostitute-cum-dangerous-spy and a nun with a mouth so foul it would make George Carlin blush, and the premise is set for the latest production out of the University of Calgary drama department, The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari. The play, written by Diane Samuels, focuses on cutting through to the reality behind the legend of Mata Hari, a now-infamous courtesan tried for treason by the French government during the First World War.

“I think that the story of Mata Hari is–in essence–about a witch hunt,” says director Samer Al-Saber. “She was targeted as a woman who was foreign, and involved with foreigners, and tried on those reasons alone.”

The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari marks an ambitious undertaking by Al-Saber. His concept of the play relies largely on elaborate set and costume designs, combined with a heavy emphasis on lighting–the latter being employed as a sort of guide through Mata Hari‘s potentially confusing narrative structure.

“This interpretation of Diane Samuel’s play will definitely be highly visual,” says Al-Saber. “Also unlike in its original run [in 2002 at England’s Watford Palace theatre], which focused heavily on diva Greta Scacchi’s role as Mata Hari, we chose to go with an ensemble cast for this performance.”

Several members of Mata Hari’s cast and production team were in MacEwan Student Centre’s north courtyard this week to promote the forthcoming play during Fine Arts Appreciation Week. Mac Hall patrons were treated to an energetic preview of the performance, as the cast members in attendance read selections from the text to a moderate student turnout.

Based on the reading, it would appear Al-Saber has chosen his ensemble well. The repartee between Mata Hari (Genevieve Bourdon) and Sister Leonide (Aretha Moller-Roth) was kept fast-paced and well executed, and Pat Quinn’s squirrely portrayal of the haplessly enamored French officer Captain Baudouin has definite crowd-pleasing potential. Bourdon manages to capture the sultry, seductive persona of Mata Hari without taking her performance too over-the-top, a clear danger with such a colourful mythic heroine. Regarding his decision to cast Bourdon, a first-time U of C main stage actor, in the titular role, Al-Saber enthusiastically advocates her as a natural choice for the part.

“Mata Hari was an extremely talented oriental dancer, and a fair portion of this play will reflect that,” says Al-Saber, “Genevieve, as an actor in her fourth year of a drama/dance double major, was really ideal for the role.”

Sexuality and gender both also factor largely into the play, as Mata Hari presents a story of a strong-willed, independent woman who found success at a time when many women couldn’t find jobs at all. Her role as a self-possessed, sexually predatorial woman is often contrasted throughout the play with stereotypical male caricatures.

“[She was] a highly extraordinary woman in a man’s world,” says Al-Saber. “Mata Hari gives us a unique insight into gender in Europe during the First World War.”

As if the promise of powerful seduction scenes and an elaborately visual retelling of the Mata Hari story aren’t enough to arouse the casual arts admirer into checking out The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari, there’s also a nun pretending to be a prostitute. With all the tawdryness and sedition, The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari is one witch to keep your pitchfork aimed at.

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