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:

 

Compelling, unflinching & charming storytelling in deeply poignant & hilariously funny Huff

Cliff Cardinal in Huff - photo by akipari
Cliff Cardinal in Huff – photo by akipari

“There is one thing we know attracts Trickster: fear.”

Better late than never; I was originally scheduled to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Cliff Cardinal’s Huff a week ago, but got grounded by a nasty cold – so I was very happy to have a chance to see it last night. Directed by Karin Randoja and currently running at Aki Studio, Huff is an incredibly strong opener for Native Earth’s 2015-16 season.

Last night’s performance featured a pre-show chat with the design team: Jackie Chau (set and costume), Michelle Ramsay (lighting) and Alex Williams (sound). Moderated by Native Earth’s Managing Director Isaac Thomas, the group talked about their early influences and what drew them to theatre production; and how a history of working together brings an organic rhythm and shorthand in communication, as well as a sense of trust (and the camaraderie was evident in the exchange between them). The design elements are integrated in such a way that if one were missing, there would be a hole in the production – light, sound and space equally important in telling this story.

When asked about the personal importance of telling the story of Huff, Chau highlighted the universal and resonant themes of loss, pain and forgiveness; Ramsay pointed out that it’s important to tell stories that don’t often get told/heard, and how Huff goes beyond what you might see in a news headline to the emotional core of the experience. Williams, a First Nations ally who keeps in touch with FN issues and supports FN productions, has a great deal of respect for this work – and pointed out the interconnectedness of the creative, intellectual and emotional in Huff, even through the play’s theme of disconnection.

Once the stage has cleared in preparation for the performance to begin, you take it in. Four flats, with a flickering projection of a Vacant sign on the one down stage right; centre stage, on the floor, a painted circle like the moon, transected with branch-like appendages. And within the space, a case of beer, an overturned chair, a lone beer bottle, an ottoman. Simple, but evocative – and made to stand alone, as well as to travel well for the production’s tour dates.

Three young brothers struggle with neglect, abuse and addiction after the death of their mother, spending more time at an abandoned motel than they do at home or school. Told from the point of view of the middle brother, Wind – performed by Cree playwright/actor Cardinal – Huff is a one-man show with a cast of many characters that incorporates Indigenous mythology, storytelling and first-person narrative. The opening scene is by turns darkly funny, heart-pounding and raw – leaving no room for doubt that this is some serious shit. Cardinal turns it from harrowing to hilarious with puckish mischief and charm, a dynamic that continues throughout the telling of this tale.

Cardinal’s performance is razor sharp and direct, but also engaging and irreverently funny – and he regularly breaks the fourth wall to yank us into the story, making the audience part of Wind’s world. This dynamic adds to the tension of the piece – and forces us to recognize that, as witnesses, we are culpable in our passivity and in our actions. The effect is both fascinating and disconcerting. [Those of you who’ve read cowbell before know that I don’t like spoilers, so you’ll be getting none here. You’ll just have to go see for yourselves.] And ever present, watchful and full of shenanigans is Trickster.

Adeptly spinning out scenes and moments from Wind’s troubled, hallucination-filled fantasy world, Cardinal fluidly weaves in and out of each character. Protective of his younger brother (a wide-eyed, adorable and magical child), but caught in the middle between him and their cruel, abusive older brother, and their largely absent, frustrated father, Wind vacillates between disconnection and revelation – trying to keep the darkness at bay with beer, gas sniffing and dangerous games, but ultimately undone by the growing awareness that he can’t get away. The appearance of the boys’ hapless, put-upon step-mother; their straight-talking, pragmatic grandmother; their uptight, ineffectual and punitive schoolteacher; goofy, elf-like friend; and the icy cool and cocky local radio DJ inject comic relief to the tale, as well as insights on the harsh realities of everyday life on the reservation. Ultimately, Wind’s journey leads him to the darkest place in order for him to see the light.

So next time you see a high or drunk native person, or read about a native kid who died huffing gasoline, don’t be so quick to judge – and stop to think about what horrors brought them to that place.

Huff is a compelling piece of storytelling, unflinching in its harsh reality, charming in its magic, deeply poignant and funny.

Huff continues at Aki Studio until October 25; then it’s off on an eight-city national tour (check back in at the Huff page on the Native Earth site for details). Get out to see this. Click here for the Aki Studio run tickets and location info.

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