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Theatre

Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout

Posted by Susan / April 21, 2007

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I've always thought that the old saying about "the best laid plans" could use a caveat about good intentions.

Despite its flaws, Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout (April 20-29 at the Cazelet Studio) was not lacking in these. Ambitious, self-reflexive and thoughtful, it has all the good intentions of a captivating stage production.

Set in Kamloops in 1910, the play by Tomson Highway focuses on four Native women as they prepare for a visit to their village by Sir Wilfred Laurier, "the big kahoona of Canada" - a phrase that would be funnier if it weren't repeated ad nauseum throughout the show. The villagers are in the midst of adjusting to growing restrictions on their way of life and their land; which will soon be parcelled out into reserves.

20070420_Ernestine2.jpgThe twist in the current Q Art Theatre production of the show is that all four parts are played by white women. The actresses in question are Allophones, a fact that throws an interesting twist on questions of language and belonging that run through the script. The playwright himself noted that the characters' lines were not meant to be English, and this linguistic displacement is played upon nicely by the actresses' own relationship with English. A second language is always forced somewhat unnaturally upon the speaker; and this created a bridge between the players and the characters. The native tongue of the Shuswap tribe is outlawed by the relatively new Canadian government, itself as artificially created as any nation. By framing the show in this way, the director's aim is also partly to challenge the hegemony of English in the arts, and show the talent and potential of Allophone artists.

However, while this idea is interesting and admirable, it fails to move beyond a gimmick into something more meaningful. On stage it feels forced, itself too artificial to convince the audience to come along for the ride.

Another well-meaning aspect of the show is the disembodied male voice that comes over the speakers to read stage directions. These introduce each of the women and continue throughout; ostensibly another device to highlight the problematic nature of storytelling, to show how the characters are puppets of history in the same way that the actresses move according to proscribed rules. But the effect falls flat, most notably because the recording of those directions is of terrible quality. The muffled, messy sound was difficult to make out and was distracting.

The excellent set design helped offset the technical difficulties somewhat. Framed by chicken wire, it accentuates the increased animalisation of the characters through the course of the play's history. The women are like hens knocking around unhinged in a uniquely female kind of viciousness, antagonism and helpless frustration. Forced to put together a banquet without the legal ability to fish the river, trap beavers or graze their cattle - and to host it for the very man in charge of the country that has imposed these restrictions - they lash out at each other and joke frantically through storytelling and argument. The use of the room draws the audience into a kind of fire circle. When a given character is not part of the action, she simply takes a seat at the sides and watches things unfold with the rest of us. Even when they are onstage, there is a prevailing sense that the events will unfold regardless of the women's raging. The crowning feature of the set is a single uprooted tree; the perfect symbol both for the Native tribes like those portrayed in the play, but also for new Canadians and Allophones, like the actresses who portray them.

Unfortunately, not much can be said for the actresses' performances; particularly that of Maria Monakhova, who plays Ernestine. Admittedly, the play is absurdist to an extent, but her constant overacting is exhausting. If there were some kind of rhythm to her extremes they might serve the seething lunacy of the plot, but as is, she has the air of an actress badly in need of a director's restraint. There were better moments, but this opening night revealed a show that badly needs to find its footing. The ideas behind the production were certainly good ones. Dramatic ambitions aside, though, in this case the play would have been more interesting to read than to see.

But that's the trouble with good intentions. Maybe we avoid the pithy caveats because no one likes to see them fail.

Discussion

14 Comments

Hugo / April 21, 2007 at 12:32 pm
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In other words. We shouldn't waste our time here. Thank you! Tactful.
samuel / April 26, 2007 at 12:57 pm
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I saw and liked the show and found that it had some pretty important things to say about the blood on the hands of the Canadian founding fathers, which many people still want to dismiss. However, I didn't see it on opening night. Opening night is not indicative of how good a play is or will become, and a person who knows anything about theatre knows this. The play showed with humour a really horrible situation whose repercussions are still felt today and the performances of the actresses were solid. The sound problem mentioned was fixed because I didn't notice it. Amateur critic-bloggers' opinions are not exactly reliable. If they were, they would be writing for some legitimate publication. (This show, BTW, got a great review in the Gazette.) My dog can start his own blog and comment about anything he sees fit, too. Reviews like this one don't exactly elevate the cultural discourse but gives some anonymous blogger her 15 minutes of fame.
zsiga / April 26, 2007 at 01:25 pm
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I really like bloggers eventhough they get kicked a lot by some people as illegitimate. I think your review was thorough and imaginative and I did direct this play.
Thanks.
As far as technical difficulties are concerned and acting jitters on opening nights, "susan", you should learn, that professional reviewers, at least the better ones, usually do not concern themselves with them, knowing exactly that a production of quality will remedy those problems.
Even Maria's first night loudness has disappeared and she does a great job, far greater then many other actresses in this town, paid much higher salaries, only because they speak pure and boring English and create nothing at the meanwhile.
A small side note at the end, next time please ask before using art work from us, or if you did so, please credit the pictures you use... photo by Q Art Theatre and artwork by Gabor Zsigovics.
Other than that, thanks for coming, which cannot be said to a mass of so called cultured people in this town, who should be interested in Canada's one-of-a-kind playwright and his latest play. Students, theatre professionals, people in general, who many times complain about how Canadian culture is always pushed to the backburner.
They go and see Riverdance and then demand the TV stations to have more Canadian programming. Big laughter. And pity.
Susan / May 2, 2007 at 03:15 am
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Thank you for your comments, Zsiga. (The artwork was given with permission, and the credits have been altered.) While I understand that flaws in a production can sometimes be written off as opening night jitters and temporary glitches, I'm not sure that as a reviewer I am comfortable assuming that anything will get better on its own. I'm glad to hear that some of these have been ironed out in this case - but the production had flaws that ran deeper than sound problems and overexcited actors. Questions of identity weren't borne out as articulately as they could have been and the themes involved felt disjointed. That being said, Samuel is correct that the show brought up questions about Canadian history that should be discussed more often.

As for the legitimacy of the review - my professional writing credits aside - part of what makes the blogosphere so exciting is that we get to hear more than just the voices of the established media. Naturally, like the internet itself, this means that many blogs are just dross; the reading public decides what they think is worth reading. It's an interesting forum though, since everyone is entitled to the expression of their opinion. As a person leaving a comment on a blog, Samuel, I'm sure the irony isn't lost on you. And your spirited opinions are both welcome and appreciated.
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