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:

 

Love & hate, abandonment & connection in the searing, electric Fool for Love

Cara Gee & Eion Bailey. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper Theatre presents a searing, electric production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell and running at the Young Centre. The shifting temperatures of love/hate and tenderness/cruelty take on new meaning, with the pairing of an Indigenous woman with a non-Indigenous man as the on again, off again lovers—who come together and tear apart, both individually and collectively, in this rough and gentle dance of connection, abandonment, rage and desire.

In a cheap, grotty motel room in the Mohave Desert, May (Cara Gee) and Eddie (Eion Bailey) play out their ongoing cycle of of love, hate, abandonment and connection in a relationship that has come together and broken apart since they were in high school. Fiery, furtive—and playing off each other’s emotional and mental states—the power dynamic shifts as one pulls it together and the other falls apart. Explosions of jealousy, rage and recrimination reveal the simple, awful truth that they can’t live with or without each other.

Watching from the sidelines is the Old Man (Stuart Hughes), a father—a memory or a ghost?—observing the scene, and offering comments and advice from his rocking chair on the sand as he drinks Jack Daniels from a Styrofoam cup. Then, entering this love/war zone is local lawn maintenance guy Martin (Alex McCooeye), there to take May out to the movies. Initially interrogated by Eddie, he becomes an unwitting confessor as Eddie reveals how he and May met—and the nature of their connection.

Outstanding work from the entire ensemble in this intense, fly-on-the-wall look at a deeply complex, conflicted relationship. Gee is both fierce and vulnerable as May; wounded, wary and loving Eddie so much, but refusing to take it any more, May wants him to leave and to stay, to have him and move on. She also doesn’t want to be a dirty secret like her mother. Bailey balances Eddie’s cocky cowboy and hurt little boy; with a family history of abandonment and an unfulfilled longing to connect with an often absent father, he struggles to be his own man—all with the painful realization that he can’t be with May, nor can he quit her. The casting of an Indigenous woman and non-Indigenous man in this production highlights ongoing issues of colonization of Indigenous women’s bodies and minds; and the lies the white-dominated patriarchy feeds to white boys—about women and what they’re entitled to—when only certain white men actually benefit from this system. (Be sure to read Gee’s Artist Note at the front of the program for her lived experience and experience working on this production, as well as shared insights on these themes.)

Hughes and McCooeye provide arms-length—though very different—perspectives of the May-Eddie dynamic. Hughes brings a grizzled, cynical, even haunting vibe as the Old Man; revealing his own life as he reveals theirs. McCooeye’s performance as the sweet but dim Martin rings of a small-town, child-like innocence, and provides some much needed comic relief. There for a simple date at the movies, Martin winds up as a witness to the latest skirmish in Eddie and May’s relationship, and confidante to their personal history together.

With shouts to the design team for their part in creating an environment of heightened realism for this production: the gritty, sparse motel room set (Lorenzo Savoini); regional costuming that is both seductive and practical (Shannon Lea Doyle); the lighting effects that give the room a neon, then a fiery, glow (Simon Rossiter); and sound design and composition (Andrew Penner) that provide both atmospheric highlighting and practical punctuation to the action. And there’s live music, created on the dobro with slide, nicely done by Hughes.

Love as a cycle of possession, addictive desire, oasis, war zone and even shame—it’s easy to see why these lovers can’t be together, yet can’t be apart.

Fool for Love continues at the Young Centre, the run extended to August 11; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance booking strongly recommended; I saw it on a Tuesday night and it was sold out.

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.