Tragic Indigenous love story & pointed satire in the profoundly moving, playful, poetic Almighty Voice and His Wife

 

James Dallas Smith & Michaela Washburn. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Biography meets pointed satire in Soulpepper’s production of Daniel David Moses’ Almighty Voice and His Wife; directed by Jani Lauzon, who performed in the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s premiere production 28 years ago, the show is currently running at the Young Centre. Using the tragic Indigenous love story of real-life Cree runner and hunter Almighty Voice and his wife White Girl as a starting point, the storytelling shifts from linear narrative to cutting vaudevillian send-up as the play dives deep into the contemporary reverberations of the ongoing clashes between European and Indigenous ways of life—and the oppression, ignorance and stereotyping that go with it. Profoundly moving, playful and poetic, it’s a poignant and magical theatrical work featuring some uncomfortable truths and discomfiting comic jabs.

Almighty Voice (James Dallas Smith) and White Girl (Michaela Washburn) are magnetically drawn to each other, his playful courtship breaking through her stern sense of decorum. Although a very young woman, she’s nobody’s fool; her experience of the world forever changed by her time in a Residential School. And as he expresses baffled irreverence for the ways of the white settlers and government, transforming hunting grounds into farmland, she is haunted by the white man’s “glass god” who watches over everything they do. Both have been given European names by the white authorities: he has been called Jean-Baptiste and she Marie; a proud and respected Cree man, he insists on his true name, Almighty Voice.

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James Dallas Smith. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Arrested for shooting a cow for a feast, when he sees a scaffold being erected outside the jail, Almighty Voice hears that he will hang for his crime—a cruel joke that sets into motion a series of tragic events. On the run from the law, White Girl insists on coming with him; and things go from bad to worse when he kills a Mountie in self-defence. When she becomes pregnant, she must let him go on alone while she returns to family to give birth to their child. In the end, he and two warrior friends are killed in a stand-off with 100 Mounties and a cannon, the two lovers getting a final glimpse of each other in visions at the moment of his death, his infant son left without a father and their people starving as hunting grounds are replaced with farmland.

Act II shifts into razor-sharp satire, structured as a vaudeville performance. Here, Ghost (Smith) is the spirit of Almighty Voice, at first acting as the disoriented straight man to the saucy uniformed Interlocutor (Washburn), then gradually getting more familiar and comfortable with the performance style. The antiquated slapstick and bawdy theatrics shine a glaring spotlight on ongoing historical and contemporary clashes between European settler culture and government and Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Scathing social commentary makes for some uncomfortable moments of dark comedy, as the “Show Indian” performs traditional dances and situation comedy making fun of Indigenous Peoples, and takes hits for the entertainment of the masses. And then, the tables are turned—and all the horrible stereotypes, prejudice and name-calling generated by European oppressors against Indigenous Peoples reverse course and land squarely on the Interlocutor.

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Michaela Washburn. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Beautiful, compelling performances from Smith and Washburn in this epic, poetic and profoundly moving piece of storytelling. Smith brings a playful, impish charm to the proud, determined Almighty Voice, sparking both comedy and passion alongside Washburn’s fierce, strong-willed, resilient White Girl. A perfect match of complementary, courageous kindred spirits, Almighty Voice’s irreverent, almost devil-may-care attitude is in stark contrast to his wife’s wary caution, borne of her lived experience at a Residential School. During Act II, the two actors demonstrate considerable comedic chops with vintage mercurial banter, slapstick antics and satirical characterizations. The comedy is dark, pointed and often discomfiting in its racist oppressor jibes at Indigenous Peoples. And a surprising transformation takes place as the tables are turned on the authoritarian soldier Interlocutor.

The evocative, well-crafted work of the design team is in great evidence here, creating an atmosphere of heightened reality and vaudevillian showmanship. Ken MacKenzie’s set and video design is particularly stunning; the backdrop of the set is from the point of view of looking up at the sky through the smoke hole of a teepee. And the glowing, shifting full moon projection adds to the magic, poetry and natural wonder inherent in the storytelling.

Uncomfortable truths told with an epic love story and sharp wit. Go see this.

Almighty Voice and His Wife continues at the Young Centre until November 10; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s (Tuesday) performance was sold out, so advance booking strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.

ICYMI: Spotlight on director Jani Lauzon in Intermission Magazine.

And check out the trailer:

 

Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

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Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

A photo album of family, love & memento mori in the profoundly moving, nostalgic, candid Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias

Beatriz Pizano & Julia (projected photo). Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

 

“They say blood is thicker than water —
I say, love is thicker than blood.”

Aluna Theatre premieres Beatriz Pizano’s Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, a photo album of family, love and memento mori; written and performed by Pizano, and created with director Trevor Schwellnus and composer/sound designer Brandon Miguel Valdivia, and running now at The Theatre Centre.

Losing her mother when she was a toddler, Pizano was adopted by her Aunt Julia and Uncle Jorge after her “Marlboro Man” father took off, leaving her and her two siblings behind—and a deep and lasting connection evolved with her new parents. Years later, after Pizano has moved to Canada, when an aged, widowed Julia drifts away in a lost, confused haze of dementia, she keeps her promise, returning home again and again to be with Julia during her “Calvary.” Weaving a personal history of distant and recent past—from her years growing up with Julia in Columbia to travelling back and forth from Canada during Julia’s final years, to and from hospital and nursing home; Pizano shifts from romantic nostalgia to harsh, heartbreaking life and death reality. And then, a chance meeting with a doctor at the nursing home—there to perform euthanasia on another patient—and an act of love, mercy and personal sacrifice to make a decision for a loved one who is unable to do so.

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Beatriz Pizano. Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Incorporating photographs and props, projected on a row of overlapping burlap legs that flare out and merge together on the floor, we see an evolving collage of life and family—from the broad strokes of wide-ranging world events to the God-is-in-the-details moments and wisdom of shared lives. The storytelling, relayed in English and sometimes Spanish, is visually rich; full of a lust for life, liberty and equality; and resonating with the music of childhood and the revolution—and, ultimately, with hope and closure. Pizano gives us a deeply personal, candid, raw and romantic—at times interactive—performance; balanced with a cheeky sense of irreverence where religion is concerned, and a revolutionary bohemian spirit when it comes to class and politics.

Part personal memory play, part confessional, part memorial, Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias reminds us that the one thing that’s certain in life—and we all have in common—is that we die. What would you do for a loved one who’s lost to the world, incapacitated and in pain—to set them free?

Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias is in its final week, closing on December 2. Advance tickets available online or by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988.

Check out this CBC piece on Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, including Matt Galloway’s interview with Beatriz Pizano on Metro Morning.

Truth & reconciliation through music, one step at a time, in the inspirational, intersectional I Call myself Princess

Marion Newman & Aaron Wells. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre join forces with Native Earth to present Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess, directed by Marjorie Chan, with associate director Keith Barker and music direction by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. History, biography, opera, and truth and reconciliation combine in this inspirational, intersectional tale of two Indigenous opera singers connecting across time and space in a journey of discovery, identity and bridging the gap between peoples one step at a time. The show opened to a packed house at the Aki Studio last night.

When opera student William (Aaron Wells), a gay Métis man, moves from Winnipeg to Toronto to study on a scholarship, his work on a production of Shanewis (The Robin Woman), 100-year-old “Indian Opera,” turns into a journey of discovery, revelation and mystical connection. Dropping clues into his path is the spirit of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), whose life and experience inspired and informed the opera, written by white composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and white librettist Nelle Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster).

Borrowing from Indigenous music, filtered through the colonial lens of well-meaning, but unaware white artists, the opera seems hokey and embarrassing by today’s standards in terms of its cultural appropriation, and romanticized, homogenized presentation of Indigenous culture. And as he delves deeper into its history—consulting mainly the works of white academics—Will finds himself increasingly uncomfortable rehearsing it. His numerous calls to the Dean falling into a voicemail black hole, he reaches out for support from his boyfriend Alex back home (Howard Davis)—who’s overwhelmed with shift work, business school and looking after his family—and finds he’s on his own. Until Tsianina appears. An Indigenous opera singer from the past, she shows him the path she chose and the part she played in putting Shanewis on the stage.

Lovely, compelling work from this cast, featuring some impressive vocal chops. In an artfully balanced performance that features soaring mezzo soprano vocals, Newman’s Tsianina is playfully mischievous and possessing the wisdom of an elder; part colleague, part spirit guide on Will’s journey of identity and expression. Understanding that sharing truth and effecting change take time, Tsianina is patient and circumspect as she works on the opera—growing and earning respect as an artist, but holding back as she gauges what her non-Indigenous colleagues and audiences are ready for. Turning down two opportunities to perform at the Met, sees her work as a balance between self-expression and truth-telling—and making connections, step by step. Wells adeptly navigates Will’s inner conflict and serves up passionate, robust vocal performances. Personal and professional challenges collide, and Will struggles to be truth to himself and his drive for artistic expression and career, and his Indigenous heritage as he struggles with the content of the opera.

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Richard Greenblatt, Aaron Wells, Marion Newman, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Howard Davis. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Rounding out the intersectional angle of the piece are Greenblatt’s Charles, a gay man navigating his personal and professional life during a time when being out was suicide; and Ch’ng Lancaster’s Nelle, who like Tsianina must keep the public’s preparedness (in her case, for a female librettist) in mind. Greenblatt and Ch’ng Lancaster do a commendable job with Charles’ and Nelle’s personal arcs—going from well-meaning, but patronizing and largely clueless in their support of Indigenous peoples to more respectful and thoughtful allies. And Davis’s Alex, a Black gay man who doesn’t read as Black due to his light skin tone, and who must deal daily with the outside perceptions and assumptions in a largely white population. In a performance that shows both strength and vulnerability, Davis gives us a loyal, passionate man who sacrifices much for those he loves, but must come to terms with the fact that, despite his best efforts, he can’t be all things to all people, all the time.

You can tell that a lot of love, work and thought went into the production design. The fringe on Christine Urquhart’s set, combining colonial and Indigenous elements, mirrors that of Tsianina’s costume; designed by Snezana Pesic, and built by Kinoo Arcentales (Yana Manta), with beading by playwright Jani Lauzon (who delivered the moccasins last night after working all night to finish the beading). And Marc Meriläinen’s sound design—drawing from Shanewis (The Robin Woman) and classical opera, as well as original compositions by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and Jani Lauzon—immerses us in this world of music, cultural intersection and history.

Truth and reconciliation—step by step, in each connection, each collaboration, each brave act of expression.

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until September 30. Get advance tickets online and go see it.

A delightful, insightful evening with Oscar in the witty, thoughtful Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class

Red Sandcastle Theatre A.D. Rosemary Doyle has teamed up with Jennifer Watson and Dorian Hart to launch The Wilde Festival, which opened with its inaugural production of Neil Titley’s one-man show Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class at Red Sandcastle’s storefront space at Queen St. East and Logan, Toronto last week.

Hart sets the tone for Titley’s intimate performance with a pre-show selection of beautiful nocturnes by Irish composer/pianist John Field, who invented the Nocturne. Field’s work served as an inspiration for Frederic Chopin’s compositions—and Chopin was a favourite of Wilde’s.

Introducing Mr. Wilde is performed in three parts. When Titley first appears onstage, it is as himself—in affable, accessible lecturer mode. Engaging and entertaining, he offers up a brief history of the show—which has been performed all over the world and to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival—and a quick timeline overview of Wilde’s life. In particular, we track Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour to Toronto; and Titley found the only venue still standing, not demolished or destroyed by fire, is Niagara Falls. And Wilde was apparently unimpressed by the great wonder of nature. Perhaps he only saw the American side.

Then, something truly remarkable happens. Titley transports us to 1898, to a Paris café where he shifts from himself as 2017 lecturer to Oscar Wilde, a year after he was released from his two-year prison sentence. The transformation is remarkable, both physically and vocally. As Wilde, he regales us with thoughts and anecdotes—with razor sharp wit, charm, unapologetic irreverence, and disdain for the mediocre and disingenuous. It’s not all fun and satire, though. There is an impassioned, deeply moving account of his experience in jail; and combined with that keen observation and ability to poke fun at society, it makes for a lovely nuanced, mercurial and poignant performance. Titley masterfully evokes the energy of Wilde; so much so, you can feel you’re sitting in the room with him.

Through it all, even when times are at their roughest, we see a man intent on pursuing a life of pleasure, art and beauty. Sucking the marrow out of life, even in his final days of penury and failing health, Wilde is the soul of wit to the end—a man who made the most of his life until his death at 46 in a Paris hotel.

We then return to 2017 to a short Q&A with Titley, during which one audience member asked if it was true that Wilde’s final words were “One of us has to go,” referring to the wallpaper in his hotel room. It’s highly likely. However, there is some question about his death bed conversion to Catholicism; it’s possible that his gesture in response to Ross’s query to bring a priest was misinterpreted—and he wasn’t signaling affirmation, but rather reaching for a cigarette. So his conversion could have been entirely accidental.

This is a must for all Oscar Wilde fans—or even if you’re just curious about the man. Whether you know a lot or nothing about him, it’s an entertaining and informative ride. I hear Titley is heading out on a cross-country train trip next week. If VIA Rail is smart, they’ll let him perform the show on the train.

A delightful, insightful evening with Oscar in lecture and first-person musings in the witty, thoughtful Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class.

Introducing Mr. Wilde, or Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class continues at Red Sandcastle until Jan 15; reserve your spot in advance by emailing redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com or by calling 416-845-9411.

Keep an eye out for future Wilde Festival productions; the website is under construction (look out for it at thewildefestival.com). In the meantime, check out this interview with Doyle about the The Wilde Festival in Xtra.

Photo: Neil Titley – by Jennifer Watson.