THEATRE REVIEW

APRIL 2024 | Volume 238

 

Production image

Rebecca Sadowski, Cole Alvis, Tai Amy Grauman as Iskwewo, Aren Okeymasim as Napew and Krystle Pederson. Photo by Emily Cooper.

You Used to Call Me Marie...
by Tai Amy Grauman
Savage Society & NAC Indigenous Theatre
The Cultch
York Theatre
April 18-28
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Tai Amy Grauman’sYou Used to Call Me Marie …is the first play I’ve seen or read about the Métis in Canada that is not strictly about the Louis Riel rebellion of 1885. That event does occupy a brief chapter of this play, but Grauman’s vision is more epic and inclusive. She aims to present an overview of Métis metaphysics, history and culture in eight scenes from an origin story through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, right up to the 2020s, with music, song and dance as key elements in the Métis community’s survivance

More parable than narrative, the play has only two characters—Iskwewo (Grauman) and Napew (Aren Okemaysim)—if you don’t count the horse Mistatim (Cole Alvis). Iskwewo and Napew are Métis archetypes, and archetypal lovers. They appear in every era, sometimes at odds with each other, usually working together to overcome natural and human antagonists. In every scene their love eventually leads to pregnancy and childbirth: perpetuation, continuity and futurity. In every scene Iskwewo cultivates a garden—the prairies, the Métis Eden—where sweetgrass and tobacco grow.

In the creation scene the two come from the Star World, to which creatures return after death. That world is continually poetically evoked in its connections with Métis women. Referring to Iskwewo, the chorus often chants that “she swallows stars.” The horse remains another strong symbol of the characters’ ties to the natural world.

Director Lois Anderson utilizes the chorus very effectively. Along with Alvis, Rebecca Sadowski, Krystle Pederson and Kathleen Nisbet don extraordinary horse masks (the same ones used in Equus at the Playhouse in the 1980s) and gallop around the stage, or simply move in beautifully stylized fashion. Nisbet accompanies much of the action on fiddle, providing an upbeat, hand-clapping, foot-stomping tone to the show. Okemaysim and Pederson sometimes join in on guitar and keyboards. Pederson does most of the solo singing, and she’s terrific. Yvonne Chartrand has choreographed some wildly enjoyable Métis jigging for the whole cast. The musical elements of the show are delightful.

Given the huge scope of the play, the troubled history of the Métis people tends to blur. We get snatches and indications of the Cree-French connection, the hostility of the English and English-Canadians, the momentous events of the Riel Rebellion, residential schools, the Depression and dustbowl, and the attempts by Napew to get political recognition of the Métis people and their rights. But the play’s theatrical shorthand flattens the history and offers little clarity or detail about the specific nature of the Métis struggles.

Grauman and Okemaysim have nice chemistry, though Iskwewo’s sometimes dour disposition seems out of synch with the overall positive tone of the show. Set designer Cecilia Vadala’s gauzy white drops, echoing Iskwewo’s wedding apparel (costumers Evan Ducharme and Alaia Hamer), and Candelaria Andrade’s projections offer a handsome canvas for this welcome portrait of human and cultural resilience.

 

 

 

 

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Vancouver's arts and culture website providing theatre news, previews and reviews