CHICAGO — Fifteen minutes after striding in shiny red shoes to the centre of the stage of an intimate Chicago comedy club, Margaret Trudeau had those in attendance shouting something that sounded quite like fuddle duddle.
“F— you! F— you! F— you!” chanted a gleeful audience at the debut of her one-woman show.
Many of those in the crowd Thursday night did not know what they were in for when they bought tickets to watch Certain Woman of an Age, a sprawl of candid anecdotes from Trudeau’s storied life that she workshopped publicly for the first time at Chicago’s Second City, a club where some of America’s brightest comedy stars have earned their stripes.
To keep everything hush-hush, she was put in a part of the hospital normally populated by men with erectile dysfunction
Wearing jeans and a white shirt, reading a script, glasses on, and sometimes gripping the top of a black music stand with her left hand, Trudeau chatted for a straight hour-and-a-half to an audience of a couple hundred seated cabaret-style, as waiters circulated filling drink orders. The show’s run hasn’t sold out of its US $45 tickets, but on opening night only a few chairs were empty.
Those filling the seats might not have expected this sort of musing on modern feminism: “These days, young women are born into their own ‘f— yous.’” It’s a mantra that took her awhile to say aloud, she said, and so she encouraged everyone present to join her in it. Those in attendance — people like a pair of sisters sitting near the front who told the National Post their only knowledge of Trudeau came from the show’s description — might not have expected to see a medical image of her brain on a screen as she oscillated between embarrassing stories and reflections on how bipolar disorder shaped her life.
Many, based on the crowd’s audible reaction, did not expect to hear that one of those comforting her at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral had been Fidel Castro.
But they were hooked, if only for the relentless celebrity name-dropping — Mick Jagger, by the way, “was an elegant ass” — or the somewhat nerve-racking sense, as Trudeau jumped from one decade to another, of not quite knowing what she would say or do next, so you had better pay attention.
One moment she was imitating Pierre by lowering her voice, sounding stern and frowning. Another moment she was describing how the Queen once saved her from tripping out of a curtsy. In another she was telling you she’d once fallen in love with Ted Kennedy. And the next she described being in a psych ward. Well, more like near a psych ward, because to keep everything hush-hush, she said, she was put in a part of the hospital normally populated by men with erectile dysfunction.
It was, in other words, a wild ride.
“Some of you are probably here because you’ve heard of my son,” she had acknowledged at the start, pausing, “Kyle.” Kyle’s sister Alicia —both the product of Trudeau’s second marriage, to developer Fried Kemper — was in the front row Thursday, beaming with pride for her mother.
Kyle’s half-brother Justin, the current prime minister of Canada, was a presence too, if not physically. His office did not respond to the Post’s question Thursday about whether a trip to the Windy City factors into his Mother’s Day plans. But his face was usually featured on one of several screens on either side of Trudeau’s lectern that displayed family photos for much of the performance. His mother mentioned him only a few times, noting for example that it was from her he’d gotten his “dramatic flair.”
It was about an hour in, during an exploration of whether she believes in God, that Trudeau let her pride in the current prime minister shine brightest. Her faith in the great religions had waned, she recounted, after an audience she and Pierre had with the Pope in Rome resulted not in a spiritual discussion but in a literal pat on the head as he offered that she was “blessed among women” for bearing children. Ditto an interaction with the Dalai Lama in which, she says, he called her “the mother of the world.”
“Two religious world leaders talking about me as an important mother figure. It was a little grandiose. It’s not like I went on to have some brilliant, incredible child, born on Christmas Day, who turned out to be the leader of a nation who can save the world,” she said, a nod to Justin, born Dec. 25. “Oh, and another Christmas baby,” she added, referring to Justin’s younger brother Sasha, who shares his birthday — “equally wonderful, to step in in case he doesn’t get it all done.”
Her subsequent description of losing their brother Michel in a 1998 skiing accident, however, was easily the most sobering moment of the night.
There was no feeling that Trudeau, who herself was the daughter of a cabinet minister, feels overshadowed by the prime minister today. Nor did it feel like her guests cared much for tales of his childhood when she could regale them about sex and drugs in the ‘70s.
It is somehow fitting that Trudeau should be developing an autobiographical play in the U.S. during Canada’s election year, one in which her son is battling for his political future. She’d famously danced at Studio 54 the night Pierre lost re-election in 1979. Then, as now, she has a knack for a headline — and her bubbling, candid style of oversharing, so unusual for a fixture of Canadian public life, is as in vogue in 2019 as disco once was.
Although the show’s clearest theme was an attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness with candour — it was presented as part of Second City’s Wellness Week — there was also a defiance running through it, a refusal to be defined by any of the men in her orbit; a “f— you,” as it were. A few heads in the audience, mainly female heads, mainly grey female heads, nodded when this theme was conveyed most acutely.
You could argue that Trudeau’s anecdotes lacked self-awareness or humility — few can relate to a shopping trip to Montreal escalating into a four-day jaunt to Paris, then, because why not, a holiday in Crete. “My life has been extreme,” she acknowledged. “Most people will not have the experience I’ve had. But the things that changed me, really changed me, they happen to everyone.” Later: “Every life is extraordinary.”
But meanderingly, precariously, with whimsy — “I smoked a lot of weed” — she succeeded, with the help of co-writer Alix Sobler and director Kimberly Senior, in making moments from a lifetime of celebrity relatable to many in the crowd. As the applause faded and the audience made its way to the exits, a couple of younger women gushed that they had totally gotten it about the overspending. Nearby, an adorable older woman could be heard telling her companions how much she liked the show, sex drugs and all. “We all have stories.” Laughing, she admitted her own weren’t as wild. “But you know, she gets up, and she speaks, and I think she delivers it well.“
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