Review: lskoonigani lsksweewak The Rez Sisters, at the Stratford Festival

by Lynn on July 30, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford Festival, until August 21, 2021        

Written by Tomson Highway

Directed by Jessica Carmichael

Set and Lighting Designer, Sophie Tang

Costumes by Asa Benally

Composer and sound designer, Wayne Kelso

Cast: Brefny Caribou

Lisa Cromarty

Christine Frederick

Nicole Joy-Fraser

Jani Lauzon

Kathleen MacLean

Tracey Nepinak

Zach Running Coyote

NOTE: lskoonigani lsksweewak is Cree for The Rez Sisters.

A beautiful, moving production of Tomson Highway’s classic play about sisterhood, the resilience of women in the face of adversity, dreaming and bingo.

The Story. These ‘sisters’ live to play bingo and dream of winning the jackpot. Marie-Adele Starblanket, Veronique St. Pierre, Annie Cook, Pelajia Patchnose, Emily Dictionary, Philomena Moosetail and Zhaboonigan Peterson, all live on the fictional reserve known as “Wasaychigan” on Manitoulin Island. The winnings from their local bingo games is small potatoes. So far their idea of a big bingo game is in Espanola, about an hour and a half away from Manitoulin Island.

Then they hear about “The Biggest Bingo Game in the World” in Toronto, with the jackpot being $500,000. How can they resist? They ask the Chief for a loan to make the journey and are refused. They work and scrape and find any job to get the money they need for the rental of the van, lodgings and food. And they dream about what they will do with the jackpot when they win, because they are certain they will.

Pelajia Patchnose is perhaps the most commonsensical of the women. She is a no-nonsense contractor who is never without her hammer and project on which to use it. She feels that if they just paved the road they won’t be so cut off. She feels isolated and trapped on the reserve and wants to leave and join her sons and husband who work elsewhere. Her sister Philomena Moosetail is more content but she dreams of going to find the child she gave up for adoption years before when she got pregnant by her married boss. But more than anything Philomena wants to buy a gleaming white porcelain toilet. Marie-Adele Starblanket is married to Eugene, who drinks. She had 14 children with him and now frets about who will take care of them should she die. She has cancer. This bingo trip gives her a chance to hope and not think of dying. Annie Cook dreams of being a singer and the money from Bingo will set her on her way. Emily Dictionary is Annie’s sister, an ex-biker, tough as nails, perhaps stand-offish, yet caring. Veronique St. Pierre hopes to buy a new stove and write a cookbook. She is the adoptive mother of Zhaboonigan Peterson, a young woman who is mentally disabled. She was also brutally raped years before by two white boys. The ‘sisters’ are protective of her.

The resilience of the women to join together and make the trip happen has a certain urgency. It’s clear that Marie-Adele is dying of her cancer so making this trip happen is at the back of everybody’s mind. On the trip they endure bickering, a flat-tire, recriminations, reminiscences, memories, joyful moments, a traumatic event and loving connection.

Bedeviling them is Nanabush, ‘the Trickster’ who appears in various guises to trip them up, confuse them, lead them on and be a ‘spirit-guide-presence’ in their lives. Some see him clearer than others.  

As the play information notes: “Ribald, harrowing and mystical, this seminal work of Indigenous drama celebrates the spirit of resilience and the powerful beauty these women bring to the tough world in which they live.”

The Production.  Good theatre makes you look harder at the details. Director, Jessica Carmichael’s moving, funny production of lskoonigani lsksweewak The Rez Sisters does that resoundingly.  

There is a projection of a large black bird in flight on the wall of the canopy—one form of Nanabush, perhaps? The raised stage under the Tom Patterson Theatre, Canopy is covered in an opaque plastic sheet. There is a raked ‘wedge’ that is on the stage as well that will be used as Pelajia’s roof, a ramp into a hospital and other locations.   That sheet will be flipped, pulled back and used as if it’s symbolically referencing something in Indigenous life and lore during the production. Kudos to Sophie Tang for the set design and lighting (I must confess that ramp gave me pause. Actors have to negotiate that angle. One does hope it’s not onerous).

Marie-Adele Starblanket (Lisa Cromarty) enters, unsteady on her feet, an IV line in her hand and stands on the playing area. She gets under the opaque plastic sheeting and wraps it around her as if she is enveloped in it as if in a hospital.

Actors leisurely enter and take a seat around the playing space. Jani Lauzon as Pelajia Patchnose saunters on, wearing work overalls, a work shirt and carrying her ever present hammer at the ready. She sits on my side of the stage, downstage, quietly knitting and whatever she is knitting is orange. I slowly suck air and let it out at the sight. Orange is symbolic and references the recently discovered remains of Indigenous children in unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools. The knitting is innocuous.  No showy ‘moment’ is made. If you see it and it registers the point is made. Later in the production Pelajia will be on the playing space holding a small skein of orange wool. Again, no ‘moment’ is made, but the impact is profound. History informs this production. Pelajia’s sister Philomena Moosetail (Tracey Nepinak) follows after her—she is in a summery, flowing dress. She sits close to Pelajia. Others follow. I note that Emily Dictionary (Kathleen MacLean) sits away from the others, on a ledge it seems, knees bent, legs spread, one biker-booted-foot flung over the back of a chair and the booted foot is on the seat. She is unsmiling and tough looking.

The play begins on time (hallelujah—I’m noting this trend at the Stratford productions so far). And for this production only, there is no “Land Acknowledgement.” I smile. Well of course there is no land acknowledgement. This cast is Indigenous. They know about that acknowledgement and what the land means. The acknowledgement is not for them. It’s for us the ‘settlers’, the ‘renters’ ‘the others.’

The last character to appear is Nanabush (Zack Running Coyote), the Trickster, who changes appearance from a bird, to a graceful animal, to a spirit. Through the whole production Nanabush is a constant presence, shifting and manipulating time and space and the lives of the sisters. Zack Running Coyote is as slight and willowy as a blade of sweetgrass, as twitchy as a bird observing the world and as graceful and exuberant as a dancer can be. For the most part he is silent and he is mesmerizing.

Director, Jessica Carmichael has captured the camaraderie of the sisters with nuance and subtlety. Her groupings of the characters often suggest ceremonial gatherings. The groupings of the women when they have to bit farewell to Marie-Adele is one such moment. The space is used well as the sisters negotiate the area. The cast is superb.

But there are also many moments when each character reveals a hidden hurt or disappointment. Pelajia stands on her roof, hammer in hand, surveying the area. Jani Lauzon plays Pelajia with a contained frustration. She sees how to fix a problem but is hampered by the opposition from the men not to help out. Pave the road! That falls on deaf ears. She is always on the lookout for projects to occupy her time and keep the boredom at bay.  Annie Cook enters breathlessly from the post office with her latest Patsy Cline album. She is played with exuberance and a quick feistiness by Nicole Joy-Fraser. She never backs down from a challenge and she sings beautifully. As Philomena Moosetail, Tracey Nepinak creates a character who is so different from her irritable sister, Pelajia. Nepinak plays Philomena as calm, contented and happy with her life on the reserve. Her wants are simple—that gleaming, white porcelain toilet would make it perfect. It’s a beautiful revelation to see what is behind the toughness of Emily Dictionary as played by Kathleen MacLean. When she lets down her guard and talks about her dead lover and her past disappointments the reasons for her tough guardedness become clear.

I have a quibble. During the production the audience is invited to look under their seats and find an envelope in which is an origami black bird and instructions on what to do with it after the production. So during the production we are all distracted from looking at the stage by looking for the envelope, seeing what’s inside and reading the instructions. Can that moment please be left to the end of the production when we don’t miss one second of this terrific effort?

Comment. Tomson Highway has written a celebration of women who are quirky, resolute, funny, irreverent, smarmy, loving and true friends when it’s needed. The Rez Sisters is a joyful celebration of sisterhood in all its prickliness. When it was first produced in 1986 it exploded onto the theatre scene in Toronto, proclaiming Tomson Highway as a new, vibrant voice telling stories we needed to hear. He has been contributing his vivid plays and stories to theatre for 35 years. I was so glad to see this play again.

As I was driving away from the theatre, I noticed the sky was packed with flocks of black birds (swallows? Not crows) flying away overhead. A perfect metaphor/symbol for this moving, emotion packed production.

The Stratford Festival.

Plays until August 21, 2021.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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