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:

 

Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

Hot Damn, it’s season 2 of Queer Slam!

queer slamBetter late than never. Due to the nature of this event, I need to confirm with the organizers that it’s okay to publish participants’ names. So, without further ado…

Hot damn, that was another fine Queer Slam at Supermarket on Wednesday night! I had the pleasure of attending back in December, when I was also invited to be a judge; I was asked to be on the judging panel again, and decided to focus on listening and taking notes – so no pics this time (except for the fabulous event poster image above).

Host Cathy Petch kicked off season two of the annual LGBTQ poetry slam with a whole lotta of love, support and energy – and played the queer national anthem “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the saw. Queer Slam will tour various locales across Ontario, and winners from each event will compete in the finals in the spring at Buddies in Bad Times – and the ultimate slam champ will win a spot at the annual Capturing Fire slam event in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday night’s slammin’ festivities included two sets of open mic performances, two rounds of slam competition and feature performer Johnny Trinh. Queer Slam attracts an incredible pool of talented folks – and open mic performers were no exception, including fellow judge, Duncan Armstrong aka TOpoet.ca. – socially aware, bold, funny and moving, these poets inform, inspire and entertain.

Slam competitors included Vanessa McGowan, Georgia Wilder and Shawna Dimitry, with judges calibrating their scores with the work of the evening’s sacrificial slam poet Kay Kassirer. Kassirer set the bar high, with some timely, astute and poetic observational call-outs about trans rights and how Hollywood fucked up the Stonewall movie; and personal experiences of pain and frustration as a person who identifies as genderless, and their struggle to navigate others’ assumptions of their sex/gender – building up a protective “wall as shield” to confront and just live in the world.

The three slam participants didn’t make it easy for us either, each with a very distinct style, voice and tone. McGowan’s work is beautifully raw, irreverent and moving – from her piece on a violation of consent, to “On Other Chunks” (from her collection Divine Cockeyed Genius). Wilder’s work went from lyrical, gothic and visceral in her first piece, to playfully erotic and comical in her final piece on desire and donuts. Shawna’s pieces were heartfelt, bittersweet renderings of childhood/teenage memories – and the complex relationship dynamics between BFFs, and coming to terms with the nature of attraction and object of desire. In the end, McGowan took first place, with Wilder coming in second and Shawna third.

Feature slam poet Johnny Trinh charmed, moved and informed with works that touch on the personal and the political. A meditation on the honesty of the breath segues into a reflection on the meaning of “home.” The first of two multidisciplinary collaborations was a longing, aching piece about the long distance relationships (featuring the work of a singer, dancer and actor), with Trinh speaking over a soundscape collage of lovers’ conversations with an R&B love song layered underneath brought to the fore in words and song: “you cannot edit my heart,” “call my name, invoke all of me, see me.” A rhythmic indictment of systemic abusive power, racism, oppression and slavery (from his new chapbook We Are Weary) – followed by an insightful reminder, as he addressed the audience afterwards, to not give our present-day bigots, haters and trolls more media time and space by referencing them. A poetic activist, Trinh also takes aim at the 1% and the outcome of income inequality and unemployment, raging against social injustice “knowing that life, let love alone, is a battlefield.” And a final collaboration with recorded acoustic guitar and cello accompaniment was a heartfelt, heartbreaking piece from the POV of the Chinese lover of a white man – a lyrical, dysfunctional love poem full of hurt, as racism presents as a dynamic otherness, stereotyped exoticism and servitude. You can also follow Trinh on Twitter.

Keep an eye out for these remarkable artists. Queer Slam goes back and forth between Toronto (at its home at Supermarket) and the other cities – check The Circuit page for details; next Toronto show was confirmed as November 18 today.

The real & the fantastical side by side @ Nora Camps’ ‘CAPRICCIO. Real & Imaginary’ exhibit

Artist Nora Camps opened her ‘CAPRICCIO. Real and Imaginary’ exhibit at the Papermill Gallery at Todmorden Mills this past Thursday night, with guest artists: Marietta Camps, MaryAnn Camps and Pamela Williams.

The title of the exhibit refers to landscape work, which can be whimsical and fantastical, even collage-like in its assembly of images. Nora Camps’ prolific work shows great variety and vibrant colour – from photography-based (like Spirited Forest, an archival photo print on canvas that combines images of women with trees), to graphic design-inspired (the Fade to Red 1-2-3 triptych) to abstract (the Open series, that bring to mind giant, intense yet benevolent eyes) to expressionistic (land/seascapes like Sound, Surf and Arriving). And she’s created several large wooden sculptures too – her take on the totem pole – and a four-minute film, a moving collage of dance clips, plays on a screen in the Papermill Theatre.

Marietta Camps, Camps’ mother and a local Vancouver Island artist, uses watercolour and oils to paint images recalled from her childhood in India. Works on display include bright and lovingly rendered portraits and landscapes.

MaryAnn Camps’ (Nora Camps’ sister) Cities at Night is a series of startling beautiful aerial perspectives – done in acrylic on canvas – of Montreal, London and Tokyo. These are the kind of magical, shimmering views you’d get if you were flying into that city at night.

Toronto Photographer Pamela Williams shows several of her remarkable black and white archival silver prints of cemetery monuments that she shot in Genoa and Rome, Italy; Paris, France; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Both beautiful and melancholy, the marble statuary works are so masterfully sculpted – and so vividly presented in the photographs – that you would swear they could come to life at any moment.

Original music by Tom St. Louis, who sang for us at the grand piano, added to the intimate, engaging atmosphere in the Papermill Gallery – and the celebration of art and friends.

The Nora Camps and guests exhibit is up until September 7.

Here are some snaps I took from the event:

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