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Ludwig Van
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SCRUTINY | Tomson Highway’s ‘The Rez Sisters’ Misses More Often Than It Hits In Stratford Production

By Paula Citron on August 23, 2021

 Zach Running Coyote (centre) as Nanabush with Jani Lauzon as Pelajia Patchnose in The Rez Sisters. (Photo: David Hou)
Zach Running Coyote (centre) as Nanabush with Jani Lauzon as Pelajia Patchnose in The Rez Sisters. (Photo: David Hou)

Stratford Festival/The Rez Sisters (Iskooniguni Iskweewuk), by Tomson Highway, directed by Jessica Carmichael, Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Jul. 23 to Aug. 21. Tickets at Stratfordfestival.ca

Tomson Highway’s revered 1986 play The Rez Sisters is the perfect vehicle for the Stratford Festival to produce in this age of cultural sensibility, particularly, because it is an authentic voice of the Indigenous peoples. Sadly, I found the production disappointing.

The sprawling play focuses on seven women on a fictional First Nation reserve on Manitoulin Island, six of whom are either sisters, half-sisters or sisters-in-law. The seventh is the adopted daughter of one of them. An eighth, silent male character represents Nanabush, the spiritual guide and trickster, who wanders among the women as an agent of joy, discord and transformation.

While their mean street days are mostly spent squabbling with each other, hurling insults, or engaging in gossip, what brings the women together is the dream of winning big at bingo. When they hear about “The Biggest Bingo in the World” that is going to be held in Toronto, they work hard to raise the money to get there.

The play tracks their journey from the reserve to Toronto and back again in dialogue that jumps from humour to darkness in dizzying leaps. Along the way, backstories are revealed, along with the women’s biggest hopes and fears.

The Rez Sisters was considered groundbreaking theatre in its day because it was a play by an Indigenous playwright about Indigenous people. It was an insider’s view of the hard life on the reserve, and as a result, it is a play that needs to unfold its riches in the fullness of time. In this production, however, director Jessica Carmichael presents us with a full-frontal assault that drowns out the action and dialogue.

The actors began at such a high decibel of language that sound was distorted. For the first third of the play, it was difficult to make out words because the actors were playing their characters on speed dial and maximum volume. And then, mercifully, there was an abrupt change, and the actors suddenly began to speak in normal voices, and we could actually make out what they were saying (although they went back to the obscurity of high voltage at the end).

At times, the action descended into chaos, not helped any by composer Wayne Kelso’s pervasive electronic drone. For example, at one point, the women rushed on, off and around the stage carrying signs (too small to read) and shouting indecipherably at the top of their lungs. Because I know the play, I think this segment was about the ways the women were raising money for the Toronto trip, but I had to guess at what it was.

And then there was this giant sheet of plastic manoeuvred by Nanabush, which became, over time, a very large annoyance to the viewer. The metaphor seemed to have no shape, rhyme, or reason within the action.

And yet, Carmichael did have some nice touches. For example, I enjoyed the circular group walking that represented the car ride to Toronto. As well, Nanabush’s physicality was always telling. When Zhaboonigan describes the horrific details of her rape and mutilation, Nanabush (Zach Running Coyote) executed the girl’s physical, emotional and mental anguish through detailed choreography.

The director also took care with each character’s “reveal” monologue, where writer Highway takes us into the secret heart of each woman. These intimate moments were given their proper time to shine amid the sound and the fury. We also got a sense of each woman’s individuality, and the director and the actors deserve commendation for these detailed character portraits.

Pelajia Patchnose (Jani Lauzon) was both frustrated and angry at being stuck on the reserve, yet she still conveyed the presence of a wise elder. Shallow Philomena Moosetail (Tracey Nepinak) revelled in small concerns, dreaming one day of getting her gleaming, new porcelain toilet.

Within the tragic figure of Marie-Adele Starblanket (Lisa Cromarty), dying of cervical cancer, was a woman terrified about how her death would impact on her 14 children and husband. In contrast, brash Annie Cook (Nicole Joy-Fraser) was very much of this moment, dreaming of a career as a country singer. She was the least sympathetic character in the play.

Emily Dictionary (Kathleen MacLean) was the most assured and confident of the women. She had returned to the reserve after the suicide of her lesbian lover, and was getting on with her life. The mentally-challenged Zhaboonigan Peterson (Brefny Caribou) neatly defined the sweetness and trusting nature of this girl-child.

And then there was poor, needy Veronique St. Pierre (Irene Poole), Zhaboonigan’s adopted mother. She was clearly an irritant to the other women, and Poole (a standby for this performance) deftly showed she was the outsider with diffident, repressed physicality.

In retrospect, I just wish that Carmichael had not directed the first part of the play with an iron hammer. High energy does not necessarily equate with loud.

There is, however, good news ahead. The festival is filming this production for future streaming, which should help mitigate the onslaught of noise and mayhem. The intimacy of the camera will work in director Carmichael’s favour.

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Paula Citron
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