The incendiary aftermath of lives in distress in the powerful, theatrical After the Fire

Louise Lambert, Jesse Gervais, Sheldon Elter & Kaitlyn Riordan. Set & costume design by Alison Yanota. Lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre, opened the world premiere of Matthew MacKenzie’s powerful, theatrical After the Fire at The Theatre Centre last night. Directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, assisted by Theresa Cutknife, the play follows two couples in the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire—the personal, environmental and economic devastation of the disaster sparking volatile dynamics and personal revelations within the group. And a stark reminder of how precious and fragile our environment is—and how we need to examine our relationship with the land and water.

The pleasant, transporting scent of sage, sweet grass and tobacco wafts over us as we sit, in the round (rectangle, actually), a recognition of the four corners—North, South, East and West—and an Elder’s opening night prayer and reminder to respect, protect and hold sacred the water and the land. Mother Earth’s gifts have been razed by flames in Fort McMurray; the set (designed by Alison Yanota) a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a large pile of wood chips and ash dominating centre stage, with a menacing tentacle-like structure hovering above. Like a dead tree dripping crude oil, its shadow resembling a dinosaur skeleton in the red light (lighting design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak). And a touch of normalcy and Canadiana:  a box of Timbits and Timmies coffee cups sit atop the ash pile.

Laura (Kaitlyn Riordan) and Barry (Sheldon Elter) lost their home in the Fort McMurray fire; and they and their daughter are currently living with Laura’s younger sister Carmell (Louise Lambert), who has recently split up with her husband Ty (Jesse Gervais), and her two kids. Carmell is a local girls’ hockey team coach and Laura is their trainer; both have daughters on the team, bff cousins. Still reeling from the personal and community disaster of the fire, they’re on a mission tonight after the hockey game: the men are digging a hole out in the scorched forest and the women are en route to the tailings pond to dispose of something.

Riordan does an excellent job of driving the urgency of their situation, quashing Laura’s distress with determination and comic observation; tightly wound, fastidious and prim—the “responsible” older sister. A perfect foil as Laura’s “wild” younger sister, Lambert brings a world-wise, no-fucks-given edge; Carmell has dealt with some serious shit in her life, including her addict ex. And although the two are polar opposites and drive each other crazy, there’s a solid bond of sisterhood despite their differences. As the men take turns digging the hole, we see another pair of opposites emerge. Elter gives a solid, compelling performance as Barry; silent and pensive, and seething underneath it all, Barry’s found himself in a place of deep reflection. Re-examining his relationship with his Indigenous heritage and to the land since the fire, he’s particularly sensitive to the condition of the local flora and fauna. Gervais’ energetic, chatty man child Ty is a bundle of nervous recovering addict energy; unashamedly unapologetic for working in the oil industry, there’s more than meets the eye. Ty also demonstrates heart-felt honesty and care, and go-to resilience—a result of his inward exploration and recovery process.

Trying to keep it all together in the face of a dire situation, hot on the heels of their world actually on fire, each character is forced to deal with the fire burning out of control in his/her life. The Fort McMurray fire, possibly caused by humans, tripped off a series of responses and actions beyond the disaster itself, and renewed reflection and debate on environmental protection vs. economic benefits. As these characters take stock of their place in and personal impact on the world—on both a small and large scale—we’re reminded how a small spark on an individual level can create huge, far-reaching consequences that impact many.

After the Fire continues at the Theatre Centre to January 19; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-538-0988. It’s a short run, so get on it.

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Fathers & sons on a journey of growth & forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt

Native Earth Performing Arts continues its 2016-17 season of compelling Indigenous theatre with Sheldon Elter’s Métis Mutt, directed by Ron Jenkins, at Native Earth’s home in the Aki Studio.

Métis Mutt began as an eight-minute piece at NextFest 2001, inspired by teacher Ken Brown and the vocal masque style of solo show. Since then, it’s grown into a 90-minute feature, was a hit at Edmonton Fringe, subsequently adapted for high school audiences, and has toured Canada and New Zealand. The Native Earth production marks the show’s Toronto premiere.

A semi-autobiographical piece of storytelling that combines stand-up, music, monologue and multiple character vignettes, Métis Mutt is part memoir, part spirit journey. Searching for his authentic voice, a young Métis (have Indigenous, half white) man struggles with centuries-old cultural stereotypes and internalized racism as he finds his way out of a cycle of violence and self-destruction to healing and forgiveness.

Heartbreaking flashbacks to the young man’s childhood reveal a sweet boy torn between protecting his mother and younger brother, and running and hiding from his father’s drunken outbursts. A favourite of his father and thus escaping the beatings, he beats himself up for his failure to act and for being a coward. Later on, having moved away with his mother and brother, his conflicting feelings emerge in letters to his dad—love and fear, longing and confusion.

As a young man, he discovers a talent for stand-up and music, and finds chosen family on the road with his hypnotist performer friend Mark, and is later drawn to theatre school. And when years-old buried emotions erupt to the surface, he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol, and cuts himself, to numb the pain.

His thoughts turn often to his father, a troubled man who struggled with demons of his own only to find them emerging from the bottom of a bottle to turn on his family. And the death of his father becomes a turning point. Not wanting to go down that same road, the young man finds his way back to himself, finding self-awareness in his struggle for identity and self-acceptance, and forgiveness for his father.

An engaging and versatile performer, Elter deftly shifts from comedy to tragedy throughout—a hilarious and stark reminder that pain comes from laughter and laughter comes from pain. Setting the tone off the top of the show with a set of stand-up, what starts off as a good-natured, self-deprecating series of stereotypical riffs on “Indians” becomes a biting commentary on hundreds of years of oppression and racism as joking around turns to rage, and entertainment becomes condemnation. The pain is turned inside out so others can see and understand. The title Métis Mutt is both a source of laughter and pain, poking fun at identity even as it grieves the damage of racist name-calling.

From cheeky stand-up and bawdy music bits, to poignant characterizations and startling scenes of violence, Elter’s storytelling is genuine, thought-provoking and frank—finding the light and the dark spots, and ultimately unearthing hope and redemption.

With shouts to the design team: Tessa Stamp (set and lights; she’s also the production’s stage manager), T. Erin Gruber (projection) and Aaron Macri (sound). Design elements are particularly effective during the young man’s mystic healing experience, when he’s taken to a native healer after traditional medicine doesn’t help him. The semi-circle of stones that delineates the playing space, and the semi-circular dream catcher backdrop that serves as a projection screen, create a sacred space that both honours and evokes the young man’s Indigenous heritage.

Fathers and sons on a journey of growth and forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt.

Get yourself out to the Aki Studio to see Métis Mutt, running to February 5; get your ticket info and online tix here.

Photos by Ryan Parker: Sheldon Elter