Two reviews from the Blyth Festival: Ipperwash and The Pigeon King

by Lynn on September 11, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer


Written by Falen Johnson and Jessica Carmichael
Directed by Jessica Carmichael
Set by Clayton Windatt
Projections by Beth Kates
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Costumes by Jeff Chief
Sound and composer, Deanna H. Choi
Cast: Nyla Carpentier
Jonathan Fisher
Nicole Joy-Fraser
James Dallas Smith

A sobering look at the contentious issues surrounding Ipperwash.

The Blyth Festival is a spunky festival that runs in the small south-western Ontario town of Blyth. It’s in its 43 season and it produces original Canadian plays. And audiences flock to see them

Ipperwash is about the contentious issues surrounding Ipperwash Provincial Park and the Stony Point Ojibway band that had their reserve there. This is not about the occupation of 1995 and the killing of Dudley George. The play takes place before then.

During WWII the Government of Canada wanted land in Ipperwash Provincial Park that was the reserve of the people of Kettle and Stony Point. The Government needed the land for an army base and they promised to give it back after the war. They didn’t until much later after much wrangling. Now the land was compromised; manoeuvres were done through burial grounds and it would take years to rehabilitate the land.

Bea is an Indigenous woman who had done two tours as a soldier in Afghanistan and wanted to come and help rehabilitate the land. She is told the story of the area by two men of the reserve: Tim, an older man who also had served in the Afghan war and Tim’s grandson also fills Bea in to the history of the place. The grandson is bitter (I also wish he had a name). Tim is a calmer, more resigned man but he too hides his bitterness.

As the audience files in one hears waves lapping on a beach. A man wearing sun glasses (James Dallas Smith) sits in a high chair in the sand, like that of a lifeguard’s guarding the area. It’s the private land of the reserve and this man is guarding it. He is Tim’s (Jonathan Fisher) grandson. Bea (Nyla Carpentier) wanders on to the area and the guard is angry she’s there. When she tells him who she is, he gets his grandfather.

There is also a kind of spirit of a woman (Nicole Joy-Fraser) who wanders into and out of scenes, chanting/singing that could be native songs. There are projections on the back wall by Beth Kates that add to the mysticism of the play and the tradition of the peoples of that land.

The idea of appropriation of the stories of a people has been in the news recently. This is not the case with Ipperwash.

Falen Johnson and Jessica Carmichael wrote it, and Jessical Carmichael also directed it. Both women are from native peoples. They also found it imperative that they visit Ipperwash; talk to the people there to hear their stories, and stay there while they did their research. Respect is everywhere in their efforts to get the story right I do have a problem though. With Ipperwash we only hear the Indigenous point of view. The feds took their land, polluted it, disrespected their burial grounds, and took their time to return it. That’s pretty disgraceful. But contrary to some ignorant people, there are not many sides to a story. There are only three: Their side, my side and the truth, as my late mother would say. We don’t hear from the Government/military side.

A Google search reveals the native peoples were offered $15 per acre for the land and they refused it. We should hear that and why the offer was refused. So many questions to ask the other side.

So while the story is harrowing and infuriating, I think it’s diminished by only having one side of the story told. Still, Ipperwash is one sobering story and it makes one curious to dig deeper into that history.

The Pigeon King

Written by The Company
Directed by Severn Thompson
Sets and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Gemma James Smith
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Rebecca Auerbach
Jason Chesworth
Gil Garratt
George Meanwell
J.D. Nicholson
Birgitte Solem

The Pigeon King is a fascinating story about a pyramid scam of breathtaking dimensions, involving the selling of pigeons. And it took place in Canada, eh?

Arlen Galbraith was a man of many ideas. And he had an eye for the vulnerable mark. He knew when people were down on their luck and he had a plan. His company, Pigeon King International, sold pairs of pigeons to farmers at a considerable sum and then offered to buy back the off-spring for a much less fee for a contract for10 years, and would sell those birds either to countries that raised racing pigeons or he would sell the pigeons to other markets as meat. Neither happened.

Arlen was making millions but he also was paying out millions to his customers, farmers usually. Arlen was a folksy soul that many people trusted. He never missed a payment to his customers, but after a while he was scrambling to get more and more customers to pay for more and more payouts. It finally all collapsed after seven years (between 2001 and 2008). It was considered one of the hugest ponzi schemes in Canadian business history. Even the New York Times covered the story.

Why did people trust him? Because they had to. They were down on their luck and he offered them a way out. Hope. People trust. Because he never missed a payment and a cheque never bounced, people trusted him. And Arlan knew how to play them.

The story was created by the seven members of the cast. They all play musical instruments and they all contributed songs. Some added to the intention of the scenes, some just repeat what we already know.

I always thing it’s tricky to create shows by committee. It needs a guiding hand to shape the show and be ruthless if a moment or song doesn’t work. Certainly director Severn Thompson does a nice job of moving the scenes along and keeping the tone light until the inevitable fall from grace. And Gil Garratt is charming as Arlan Galbraith—tight-voiced, a bit stodgy, awkward and with an ‘ah shucks’ attitude. You can see why people trusted him.

But again, I had concerns. It did need a head writer to oversee everything with a sharp blue pencil and a pair of scissors. Since everybody in the cast is a musician with a song to sing, they naturally want all their songs to be in the show. I thought the duet at the end was unnecessary. The important part is the trial with Arlan and the results of the trial. To add a song that reiterates the obvious is overkill.

There should have been some way to end the show with a punch, before that duet which took away a forceful ending. I did appreciate leaning about this scam artist though. And there is a trusting but concerned attitude. People began trusting, but then when they realized Arlen was a crook they went after him.

Note: The program doesn’t list any characters, only actors. I hope they change that in future. The program doesn’t list any characters, only actors. I hope they change that in future.

Ipperwash plays until September 16.

The Pigeon King plays until September 23.

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