Beyond Eden is the first theatrical mega-event of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. Bruce Ruddell’s fictionalized musical telling of the voyage of anthropologist Wilson Duff and future First Nations über-artist Bill Reid to retrieve rapidly deteriorating totem poles from the village of Ninstints on Haida Gwaii in 1957 gets epic treatment in this Vancouver Playhouse-Theatre Calgary co-production directed by Dennis Garnhum. This is spectacle entertainment of the highest order with excellent production values and fine performances. The scale, the pizzazz, and probably the price tag are of Olympian proportions, appropriate to the occasion. But whether the show is adequate to the serious subject it tackles is another question.
Bretta Gerecke’s stunning set consists of a couple of sloping ramps criss-crossed with huge tree trunks. The neutral colours provide an ideal contrast with Jamie Nesbitt’s projections of Gwaii Edenshaw’s Haida designs against the cyclorama, and with the sensational scrolling of those designs, via projections, upon the “trees,” turning them into the familiar iconic carved totems which have become emblematic of British Columbia. When the Bill Reid character, here named Max Tomson (played effectively by Cameron MacDuffee), sees them, he is so awe-stricken that he basically decides to become the master carver Reid in fact became.
Max’s story is one strand of the plot. Branded “half-breed” by Haida brothers Victor and Joe Duncan (Tracey Olson and Telly James), who have reluctantly agreed to join the voyage, Max struggles with his loyalties and his sense of self. Joe Duncan in particular violently opposes the expedition, arguing that the anthropologists are stealing the Haidas’ heritage.
That conflict is even more sharply focused in the character of the white anthropologist, Lewis Wilson, played by John Mann. His is the main plot-line. Wilson is tormented, hallucinating a First Nations character called The Watchman (Tom Jackson) and his group of traditional Haida singers and dancers, who try to dissuade him from his salvage operation, making the same argument as Joe Duncan but more formally. And if that’s not enough for Wilson, he has brought along on the voyage his wife (Jennifer Lines) and teenage, Elvis-obsessed son (Andrew Kushnir). He’s estranged from them both because of his conflicted obsession with his mission to save (or steal?) the Haidas’ magnificent cultural monuments.
Other than Wilson’s hokey domestic plot, which somewhat trivializes his mission and gives Lines (who always surprises—this time with the quality of her singing) the most conventional character she has played in a long time, the story is strong. The acting is very good—Jackson has great presence, Mann makes Wilson’s torment compelling, both Olson and James do very good work as the Duncan brothers. And the design elements are all effective, including the traditional Haida costumes of the Watchman and his followers (also designed by Gerecke), Alan Brodie and Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, and Michael Rinaldi’s soundscape. The masked Haida dances and songs are very evocative, too, although at times the First Nations spectacle feels a little like an ethnographic exhibition.
But I don’t really understand why this story is being told as a musical. Ruddell’s songs and their musical accompaniment (arranged by Bill Henderson and accompanied by Bill Sample’s five-piece band) are, with only a few exceptions, workman-like. Mann sells everything he sings, but the dramatic quality of every one of his songs seems the same after a while. Jack’s Haida-rock number “Howa Baby” is performed wonderfully by Kushnir but really has nothing to do with the central story or conflict. The musicalization of the dialogue and Jacques Lemay’s minimal choreography add further elements of spectacle to the presentation but do little to elaborate or deepen the key issues, the main characters’ internal conflicts, or the audience’s sense of the extraordinaryily rich, profound, and still contested cultural heritage the Haida and other BC First Nations have left us all.