Promises, empty houses & trying to make it right in the haunting, heartbreaking, thought-provoking Ipperwash

Samantha Brown, PJ Prudat & James Dallas Smith. Costumes by Jeff Chief. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Kaytee Dalton.

 

Finally got out to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Falen Johnson’s Ipperwash last night; now in the final week of its run at Aki Studio.

The catchy, familiar pre-show music (assembled by composer/sound designer Deanna H. Choi) swings with the sounds of 1940s wartime favourites—cheerful, upbeat and brimming with optimism for the future. The music stands in stark contrast to the grim, derelict scene on stage: a girl lying still on the sand centre stage, flanked by a neglected looking house on one side and a beat-up life guard tower on the other.

This is where Bea (PJ Prudat) finds herself when she arrives at the Kettle and Stony Point Reserve. Startled and gravely concerned to find a child playing on the beach, she shouts out the danger to the girl (Samantha Brown). An Afghanistan war veteran, Bea has taken a year-long contract with Canada’s Department of Defence, joining the clean-up team at the former Camp Ipperwash. The place is a dangerous mess, the appropriated land riddled with shells, landmines and various other ordinance left behind by the army—and the environment poisoned by lead and waste dumped into the lakes.

The mysterious girl disappears and Bea meets another resident: the gruff, self-appointed reserve security guard Slip (James Dallas Smith), who softens when he learns that she’s native (Bea is Anishinaabe), and begrudgingly shows her the way to his Uncle Tim’s place, which Bea is renting during her stay. Now a resident at a seniors’ home, Tim (Jonathan Fisher) has kept his family home and rents it out; but, for some reason, he won’t join Bea inside for tea.

Taking this job because she wants to give back, Bea is confident that she can do some good, and soon finds herself climbing mountains of paperwork as she struggles with her own personal demons. And that mysterious girl keeps appearing—and there’s something strange about her. Beyond the environmental damage of Ipperwash, Bea learns of the devastating personal toll—of lives uprooted and lost. Tim is a WWII veteran, who left his mother and younger sister to serve his country. Upon his return, he found his home was gone, the house moved to a location convenient for the army; and his mother and sister dead, buried on the land where their home originally stood. Even though he’s a veteran, the camp is off limits and he can’t even visit their graves. Revelations and relationships emerge; and Bea ends up helping—and being helped—in ways even she couldn’t have foreseen.

Lovely work from the cast in this personal story of a national shame told with candor, humour and heart. Brown brings an ethereal, luminous quality to the strange wise child Kwe; and Prudat mines Bea’s exterior toughness and determination with a haunted, hunted vulnerability. Smith is entertainingly cynical and irreverent as Slip; and there’s a deeply protective quality and wealth of knowledge beneath that suspicious, detached front Slip puts on. And Fisher is heartbreaking as Tim, a man who gave to his country only to have everything he loved taken away—the very army he served with barring him from his homeland. Haunted and struggling with a displaced homecoming, Tim avoids the house he grew up in—the memories too fresh and raw.

Promises, empty houses and trying to make it right in the haunting, heartbreaking, thought-provoking Ipperwash.

Ipperwash runs until February 18. Get advance tickets online; it’s the final week of the run, so catch it before it closes.

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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.

You can keep up with Native Earth Performing Arts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

A beautiful & painful coming of age story – The Lesser Blessed

I had the great pleasure of attending the premiere of The Lesser Blessed yesterday afternoon at the Isabel Bader Theatre, part of the TIFF 2012 program – and left the theatre incredibly moved.

Based on the novel by Richard Van Camp, and adapted for the screen by Van Camp and director Anita Doron, The Lesser Blessed is the story of Larry Sole (Joel Nathan Evans), a quiet and shy young Tlicho man, a misfit outsider navigating the social mine field that is high school, trying to make friends and fit in, and desperately crushing on classmate hottie Juliet Hope (Chloe Rose) while trying to avoid getting beat up by bully Darcy McManus (Adam Butcher). He loves heavy metal and is an excellent illustrator. And he’s struggling to overcome a horrific and violent incident in his past. Set in the fictitious small town of Fort Simmer, NWT (shot in Sudbury, Ontario), Larry lives with his mom Verna (Tamara Podemski) and her boyfriend Jed (Benjamin Bratt), a father figure dedicated to instructing Larry in the traditional ways of the Tlicho (aka Dogrib) people. Life takes an interesting and exciting turn for Larry with the arrival of cool new kid Johnny Beck (Kiowa Gordon), a hunky Métis bad boy who’s just moved to town with his mom and smart-ass kid brother Donny (Lucius Hoyos).

The storytelling is powerful and moving, with beauty and with agony – and the narrative voice-overs from Larry, as well as the sharing of day-to-day experience (Jed’s hunting trip) and Larry’s use of storytelling to tell his mom about his feelings, bring a nice connection to the oral teachings of Native peoples. And the scenes of Larry in the bath – interspersed throughout the film, dropping clues along the way – are both beautiful and terrifying, as we gradually see the burn scars on his back and chest, along with flashes of a memory of violence and fire. Sole and Hope are significant names in this journey – and the teens each have his/her own shifting path to navigate, even the bully Darcy.

Lovely performances from a stand-out cast playing amazingly well-written, fully realized characters. Evans is remarkable as Larry, an introvert with much going on beneath the surface, getting into Larry’s internal world and showing us glimpses of his heart with such stillness and depth – and powerful during explosive moments when those feelings erupt to the surface. Gordon’s Johnny is all cool toughness on the surface, but he’s got his own demons to deal with, as does his little brother, with Hoyos (as Donny) providing comic relief with hilarious potty-mouthed wise-cracks. And Rose gives a sweet vulnerability to Juliet, struggling with the everyday grim boredom of a small town where there isn’t much of anything to do except drink, do drugs and party – looking for love and perhaps a way out, and brave enough to break from her pack of friends to be kind to Larry. Even Darcy the bully is not all he appears to be – a past incident involving Larry has brought their relationship to where it is. Tamara Podemski gives a beautiful, haunted quality to Verna, while Bratt brings a sense of strength and wisdom to Jed – and both round out their performances with a raw vulnerability. There are no good guys or bad guys here – everyone is flawed and all are struggling. And keeping a sense of humour (Larry’s line: “Don’t panic, I’ve got bannock.” was hilarious) and finding a sense of belonging go a long way toward surviving life’s painful realities. These characters are very real – and the actors do them proud.

Writer/director Doron bounded onto the stage for the Q&A that followed the screening, which made me wonder if she’d taken her shoes off – either that or she’s super agile in heels or wearing flats under that stunning blue gown. She introduced the cast and author Van Camp, who joined her onstage – with Van Camp doing a hilarious optical illusion flying entrance from the wings. Fielding a question about casting, Doron spoke of the serendipity of assembling the team for the film. With a novel that was five years in the writing to a film that took seven years to realize, she saw Bratt as Jed very early on in the screenwriting process and he was happy to come onboard. Podemski is someone she’s wanted to work with – and she had her Verna. Doron did a road trip to NWT, touring high schools to find her Larry, and caught sight of Evans making a group of friends laugh in the hallway. He ditched the initial audition to write a math test (he got 80% on it), but they eventually connected and the first-time actor was hired. She also spoke of love at first sight during casting sessions with Rose and Gordon. And it was cinematographer Brendan Steacy who was the “angel” who  introduced her to producer Alex LaLonde.

Someone in the audience asked if they’d planned to shoot during grey overcast weather or if this was by chance. Apparently, it was the latter – and it really added to the atmosphere of our young hero’s journey. There was a group of Tlicho (aka Dogrib) folks who came from NWT to see the film, among other Native peoples who came out to offer their support. All in all, a real spirit of community and support – from the film world, film fans and Native community.

The Lesser Blessed has one more screening at TIFF – sold out – on Tues, Sept 11 at 6:15 p.m. at the Scotiabank 2. Keep your eyes peeled for this one, folks, it’s a beautiful film.

For more info on The Lesser Blessed, visit the film’s website.

You can also check it out on IMDb.

And you can pay author Richard Van Camp a visit here.

TIFF 2012

Can’t forget the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which opens on September 6 and runs until September 16. I seldom get out to this, since I’m usually pretty booked up in September – especially with theatre-related stuff – and often I’m working on a show (which I am, but not till a bit later this month – more on that soon).

Two movies that caught my attention this year:

The Lesser Blessed (based on a novel by Richard Van Camp, adapted & directed by Anita Doron): http://tiff.net/filmsandschedules/tiff/2012/lesserblessed

Here’s an interview with the three young stars of the film, courtesy of Spartan Youth Radio:

Stories We Tell (personal documentary by Sarah Polley): http://tiff.net/filmsandschedules/tiff/2012/storieswetell

Here’s the trailer:

I was able to get a ticket for The Lesser Blessed for this Sunday’s opening screening, but not quick enough to score one for Stories We Tell – so I’ll be looking for that film’s release after the fest.

For more info on film programming, scheduling and tickets, visit the TIFF website: http://tiff.net/

What are you seeing at TIFF?