march 2017 | Volume 153
by Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver
- Presentation House Theatre, North Vancouver
Mar. 29-April 9
- Studio 16, 155 W. 7th Ave.
REDPATCH purports to tell the story of “the sacrifice that aboriginal, First Nations, and Métis soldiers made for Canada in World War I.” It does so through a single character, named Half-Blood in the program but called Woodrow in his regiment, and played with depth and ferocity by co-writer Raes Calvert. Think Three Day Road meets Billy Bishop Goes to War.
The script references residential school, racism, Northwest Coast storytelling and culture, Raven the Trickster, dream visions, shell shock, Vimy Ridge and more. Director/co-writer Sean Harris Oliver uses mask work (Jennifer Stewart’s masks combine aboriginal design and gas mask structure), stylized choreographed movement and battlefield pyrotechnics (Bradley A. Trenaman’s lighting, James Coomber’s sound, Pam Johnson’s set), along with naturalistic conversations to suggest the nightmarishness of the trenches and the surreality of Half-Blood’s experiences.
The result is a somewhat muddled story with flashes of valour and horror. The central character never becomes fully three-dimensional; the often vivid theatricality of the piece tends to generalize rather than particularize his experience.
The play flashes back and forth between Half-Blood on the battlefield and as a younger man back home with his grandmother (Reneltta Arluk), who sometimes manifests herself as Raven, and his best friend Jonathon (Deneh’Cho Thompson). The two boys, in residential school together, dream of being warriors, and in a key scene they steal an oceangoing canoe and attempt to harpoon a killer whale. Jonathon also turns up on the battlefield, both encouraging and goading Half-Blood.
Half-Blood’s Canadian Forces platoon-mates are Howard Thomas (Joel D. Montgrand) from Ontario, Bam-Bam (Emilie Leclerc), a francophone from Quebec, and Dickie (Chelsea Rose Tucker) from Manitoba. Their platoon leader, Sgt. MacGuinty (Arluk again), sports a thick British Isles accent. So the group appears to be a kind of microcosm of Canada circa 1917.
Despite various racist remarks, the platoon comes to admire and respect Half-Blood, who uses his “Indian” skills effectively. He’s the unit’s sharpshooter and can also soundlessly sneak out across No Man’s Land at night, using his spade (for digging trenches) as a deadly weapon. After a few months he’s got over a hundred notches on his spade. But after a few years he’s also going crazy, literally. Like John Gray’s Billy Bishop, the sweet young innocent has become a vicious killer. But unlike Bishop, Half-Blood is haunted by killing and death. Will his grandmother be able to heal him?
Stranded somewhere between character study and cultural allegory, the play never clearly reveals what it wants to be through all the smoke and noise and dance. Some of the mask scenes are effectively spooky, and at times the sharp choreography reminded me of a Michael Jackson video. All the acting is good, with the cross-cast women doing very effective work in male roles. The fact that the entire cast is indigenous is a credit to the company, given the nature of the story being told.
I just wish it had been told in a more clearly focused, fully developed way.
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