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:

 

Rockin’ good fun for all ages in the delightfully whimsical, magical A (Musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ahmed Moneka as Puck. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Driftwood Theatre Group is back this summer, celebrating its 25th season with a tour of its outdoor Shakespearean awesomeness. This year, it’s a delightfully whimsical, silly, rockin’ Bard’s Bus Tour production of A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, adapted by Kevin Fox, Tom Lillington and D. Jeremy Smith; directed by Smith, assisted by André de Angelis; and music direction by Lillington. I caught the magical shenanigans in Toronto at Withrow Park last night.

King Theseus (James Dallas Smith) and his betrothed Hippolyta (Siobhan Richardson) are called upon by distressed nobleman Egeus (Ahmed Moneka) to intervene when his daughter Hermia (Marissa Orjalo) refuses to go along with an arranged marriage to Demetrius (Nick Dolan). Hermia is in love with Lysander (Nathaniel Hanula-James); and her BFF Helena (Kelsi James) is in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. Bottom line: Old-school law says if Hermia doesn’t marry Demetrius, she’ll be put to death—so she and Lysander run away into the forest, hotly pursued by Demetrius and Helena.

In the forest, another royal couple—Oberon (James Dallas Smith) and Titania (Richardson)—are estranged and at war over the custody of an orphaned human boy. In an attempt to steal the boy away, Oberon sends sprite Puck (Moneka) to fetch a magical flower, the juice of which will cause its victim to fall madly in love with the first thing they see; Oberon applies the flower to the sleeping Titania. Under Oberon’s orders, Puck goes to anoint Demetrius so he’ll fall in love with the scorned Helena—but mistakenly applies the flower to Lysander. Now both men long for Helena, and threaten to serious harm on each other to win her.

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James Dallas Smith as Oberon & Siobhan Richardson as Titania. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Meanwhile, laid off auto worker Bottome (Steven Burley) gathers in the forest with fellow mechanicals (aka tradesmen: Dolan, Hanula-James, Orjalo and James) to rehearse a play they hope to perform at Theseus’s wedding, where a practical joke played by sprite Puck (Moneka) turns Bottome into a donkey and scatters his friends in fright—and draws the loving attentions of the bewitched Titania when she awakens to see him.

Of course, chaos and hilarity ensue—and Puck must find a way to make it right. And the whole thing culminates with a play within a play, as the bumbling but earnest mechanicals perform their hilarious classical tragedy at the wedding.

This is the kind of Shakespearean comedy where you pretty much have to go silly or go home—and the Driftwood cast really gives ‘er as they accompany the magical hijinks with a catchy rock, soul and opera-inspired a cappella music score (with Fox and associate music director Alison Beckwith providing additional vocals). The production also incorporates some fun Dungeons & Dragons and Pokémon moments.

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Steven Burley as Bottome; with Nanthaniel Hanula-James, Nick Dolan & Marissa Orjalo as the mechanicals. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Burley is hilarious as the loveable windbag Bottome, who would play all the parts if he could—deep down, a man adrift and reaching out for community. Hanula-James and Orjalo are hysterical as the vain cellphone and selfie-obsessed Hermia and Lysander; Dolan brings a sullen teenage edge to Demetrius and James is adorkable as the scorned, awkward Helena. Smith and Titania are nicely matched, doing double duty as the human and magical royal couples; imperious yet full of their own quirks and foibles, they show us that it’s not just humans who can be fond and foolish in love. Moneka is a delight as the mischievous Puck; and comical as the old-fashioned, technically-challenged Egeus.

Driftwood’s reputation for making Shakespeare accessible for all ages, as well as introducing creative innovation to the canon, is in full force with this enchanting, fun production. Bring the family, a picnic, some chairs or a blanket—and enjoy an evening outdoors with this magical comedic favourite.

A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream is back at Withrow Park tonight (July 27) at 7:30; and continues around Ontario until August 18, when it closes at Mann Raceway Plaza in St. Catharines. Check the Bard’s Bus Tour page for the full schedule of dates/locations, as well as reserved seating. Admission is pay-what-you-can (PWYC) or free; suggested contribution is $20-$30 per person. Check the company’s Twitter account for weather-related updates.

As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, Driftwood is collecting audience stories about experiences seeing their productions; you can do that on paper at the venue or on social media (make sure to tag Driftwood). You may also want to consider lending your support with a donation to keep the company going for another 25 years.

*New Toronto performance added: Thurs, Aug 15 at 7:30 pm at the Daniels Spectrum Courtyard.

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.