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:

 

Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

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Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

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Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.