by Lynn on February 11, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Erin Shields, based on a concept by Sandra Laronde
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
Choreography by Sandra Laronde, Carlos Rivera
Production design (set, video and lighting) by Andy Moro
Costumes by Elaine Redding, Charlene Senuik
Sound by Rick Sacks
Cast: Sera-Lys McArthur
Brandon McMurtry-Howlett
Carlos Rivera

A play about taming a wild horse confronting prejudices and being true to your history.

The Story. “Mistatim” is Cree for ‘horse.’ It is also the name of the horse who is the focus of this story. Calvin is a young boy, about eleven years old, who is responsible for ‘breaking’ or ‘taming’ the wild horse that is on his family’s farm. The only way he knows how to do this is through the whip and cruelty. He learned this from his father.

Speck is a young Cree girl, the same age as Calvin who secretly watches the wild horse gallop around the farm. She stops Calvin from being cruel. She uses a calm voice and kindness to gain the horse’s trust. She also names him. She believes that the horse is actually snorting/whinnying the word “Mistatim” so both Calvin and Speck name him that. Calvin has a short time to tame Mistatim or his father will put the horse down.

We also learn that Speck lives with her grandmother. Her family was subjected to the cruelties of the residential school system with disastrous results.

The Production. Andy Moro’s set is simple: a bare stage with only a moveable corner of a wood fence to indicate ‘location.’ Carlos Rivera plays Mistatim with elegance, energy and pride. He wears a mesh horse’s head, and a headdress of indigenous symbolism. Mistatim is a horse who understands Cree so Spec talks to him in Cree to gain his trust. Calvin learns Cree as well in order to communicate with the horse.

As Speck, Sera-Lys McArthur is thoughtful, has an attitude, but an innate knowledge of how to treat and tame an animal as wild as Mistatim. As Calvin, Brandon McMurtry-Howlett is a bundle of energy and insecurities. He’s afraid of standing up to his father but knows that treating Mistatim with cruelty is wrong. He has a dilemma that he has to deal with.

Director Andrea Donaldson knows how to realize the fearless energy of kids of that age as they race around the farm and frolic with Mistatim. The always mesmerizing Carlos Rivera, as Mistatim charges almost non-stop around the space, creating this majestic animal who knows how to ‘tame,’ treat children.

Comment. There are echoes of War Horse in Mistatim, but with a decided indigenous slant. Playwright Erin Shields has created an important story fusing the horrors of residential schools and taming a wild animal, but doing it in a way that is not harrowing or off-putting. We get the point of the terrors of the residential schools without being hit on the head with it. And with kindness Calvin learns how to tame a horse. I saw this at a school matinee. The fact that the young audience was quiet and engaged in the play attests to the play’s power.

Produced by Red Sky Performance and presented by Young People’s Theatre.

Opened: Feb. 9, 2016.
Closes: Feb. 19, 2016.
Cast: 3; 2 men, 1 woman.
Running Time: 60 minutes.

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