by Lynn on February 22, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r: Herbie Barnes, Tracey Hoyt.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

At the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Drew Hayden Taylor

Directed by Patti Shaughnessy

Set by Robin Fisher

Costumes by Sage Paul

Lighting by Nick Andison

Sound by Beau Dixon

Cast: Herbie Barnes

Tracey Hoyt

A mildly amusing play that only gives lip-service to serious Indigenous issues without examining them in any way. Tedious.

 The Story. Arthur Copper (Herbie Barnes) is an indigenous man who has lived near this lake his whole life and knows every curve and rock of it. He says he might paddle his way around it blindfolded just following the smells. He has great respect for nature and the lake, its ebb and flow, the cycles of growth and decay and renewal. He has decided to plant wild rice in the lake as per his traditions of years of yore and his people will have food.

Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt) and her husband bought their cottage on this lake decades ago. They love the serenity, quiet and beauty of the place. They planned to retire there. Their children learned to swim there etc. She has been wrangling with Arthur Copper because he is spoiling their lake with his choking plants. They spar. The authorities are called. Matters escalate.

The Production. Robin Fisher has designed a lovely set that establishes the quiet, sweep and beauty of the lake. A blue backdrop suggests the water. Stage left is Maureen’s deck, her bar-b-q, her deck chair, a table with an ever-present bottle of Chardonnay and a big glass in which to put it. Stage right is a canoe and other stuff for nature. Beau Dixon’s lovely sound design conjures birds, loons, nature, loud boats, noise and country life. Very evocative. You can almost smell the scents of which Arthur mentions.

Each character is in his/her own space, Arthur is in the canoe and Maureen is sitting in her deck chair on her deck. Most of the time each addresses the audience, confiding in them. Occasionally they address each other and are somewhat civil to each other with Arthur being more accommodating to Maureen than the other way around.

Patti Shaughnessy has directed this so that the proceedings are low-key, no yelling. As Arthur, Herbie Barnes is a charmer. He has an impish sense of humour, knows how to make nature work for him, is in his element when on the water and seems to have the upper hand when dealing with Maureen.

As played by Tracey Hoyt, Maureen is officious, pretentious, self-deluded yet sad in her own way. Ms Hoyt has a tight smile and a curt way of talking—as if everything she says is not for debate. She is stymied by Arthur and angry at it. When Arthur and Maureen did have a conversation regarding his wild rice planting, all she could say was that he had ruined the lake, that people could not swim, fish or boat on the lake because of the thick plant-life. Arthur countered with the history of his people in the area.

Both characters have experienced loss and each felt sad for the other. But playwright Drew Hayden Taylor does not make it so cloyingly sentimental that these two characters develop a close relationship. Nope thank heavens. They maintain their prickly distance.

 Comment. As with any play by Drew Hayden Taylor the laughs are fast, furious and labored (the title gives a hint to that). He tries so hard to instill seriousness in Cottagers and Indians having Arthur drop references to hot-button topics: residential schools, unfair treatment of Indigenous peoples in the courts, terrible living conditions, the destruction of their lands for fishing and hunting, but never dealing with them in any way other than superficially. It makes the play seem so slight. And for all the importance of the wild rice to Arthur, as food for his people and to sell, you would think it would be a given that when Arthur and Maureen did talk to each other about their differences, that the topic of why Arthur was planting wild rice might have come up between the two of them. But it doesn’t with any kind of seriousness. That too weakens the play.

Arthur reminds Maureen that she only comes to the cottage four months a year. He says that while she wants the lake to remain as it was decades before when she bought it, that is not realistic. So he planted wild rice for food and for the lake to flourish as he thought it should.

It’s obvious that Drew Hayden Taylor has written two funny characters but with Arthur we laugh with him and with Maureen we laugh at her. That makes the play lopsided along with its other weaknesses.

Not a happy night in the theatre.

Produced by Tarragon Theatre.

Opened: Feb. 21, 2018.

Closes: March 25, 2018.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

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