Arts and Remembrance

(This rambling wreck careened out of a keyboard when days were colder in Ottawa, Canada, where the pro hockey team is a source of civic anxiety and depression, but where the temperatures sometimes now hit double digits by mid-afternoon. Celsius.)

Reasons that Ottawa is great, Article 5, Subsection 3, Clause 11: the National Arts Centre is a five-minute drive from my house. (Okay, the last time, it took 10 because we’re the snow capital of the world right now. We’re getting another 25 centimetres this week. Me back, me achin’ back!  But the sun is lingering longer and I believe in melting.)

Back to the NAC. Ballerina Bride still loves to see the occasional dance piece, although she has little patience with the avant-garde stuff. It’s all pretty new to me, so I end up enjoying the fascination with oddness while she boils and filibusters non-verbally. We recently switched to a dramatic presentation, because she’d seen the director’s name in some promo material. That can’t be the Yvette Nolan that was my manager at Swenson’s Ice Cream and then my roommate in Winnipeg, can it?! said the once and future Twirler. While she was studying at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, my bride lived with an Yvette, though she hadn’t known her as a theatre person. But Yvette had been part Aboriginal, and this was a native-themed play at the NAC, so maybe just maybe…

Absurd coincidence appeals to me, too. When she showed me material for Death of a Chief, I noticed a name from my teaching past, that of a girl from the Six Nations Reserve who had silently suffered through my grade 11 writing class. Yeah, but there are lots of Johnsons and it’s a pretty big country. But the play looked interesting, even if there weren’t old friends and students in key roles: it was a Native North American spin on Shakespeare’s classic tale of leadership and rivalry, Julius Caesar. And so, to the National Arts Centre we went.

[He finally gets ’round to the review.] In the Studio Theatre, the stage was bare, except for a curved arrangement of what looked like rocks. Black-out, and when the lights slowly came up, there were simply-costumed actors lying on the stage, slowly moving and then slowly chanting traditional Aboriginal songs. There were coloured banners – one of them a road which we later learned was an evocation of the troubles between white developers and Native activists near my old home town, along southern Ontario’s Highway 6 – and stylized movements and nary an English word. We were taken to a primal place of dance and song and symbol, and we were there for a good ten minutes. I was expectant, fascinated, with only the smallest tinge of impatience.

And then in walks Cassius, played by a short, fierce woman. “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” comes the familiar Shakespearean line, delivered by a tall, slender, female Caesar with a long white ponytail. It was jarring, and purposely so. Suddenly, the ensemble, which has been wordlessly weaving a visual and auditory tapestry of traditional Native culture, switches into a condensed but textually familiar performance of Shakespeare. Caesar wears a brightly coloured robe, others wear buckskin or hooded sweatshirts, and the swords of the Roman senators and warring factions become the flint knives of Aboriginal leaders, both modern and ancient, disputing for power.

It was a fascinating performance. We soon became used to a female Caesar (Monique Mojica), and an Aboriginal Brutus (Keith Barker) who plots her downfall out of concern for his home and native land. And the delivery of Shakespeare’s lines was strong, though for this lover of the Stratford Festival, a few lesser performances were grating. (Nothing has ever compared to the brutality committed by Keanu Reeves as Don John in a cinematic version of As You Like It. Wow. His syllables clanked like stones in a bathtub.)

As unsettling as the opening is – and the initial mash-up of Shakespearean English and tribal custom – the piece overall worked well. I watched avidly. And when, at the death of Caesar, the soft, mournful chanting begins anew, it feels like a natural and homespun part of the world that the Native Earth Performing Arts troupe has woven.

The play arose from a joke. Aboriginal actors, playwrights and directors were discussing how they could widen their theatrical possibilities. After all, there are only so many parts for noble savages and other ethnic clichés. One of the performers flippantly said, “Why can’t we do an all-native Julius Caesar? It’s really just about Aboriginal politics, after all.” That offhand comment developed into this production and, yes, the joker was my wife’s old roommate, director Yvette Nolan. And when I picked up my program before the show began, I was delighted to see that Decius (and several other roles) were indeed taken by my former student, Falen Johnson. Nifty!

Falen was good, very watchable and with command of the language. After Diana and I talked to Yvette, Falen was also open to post-show meetings with an unnamed old fella; I’m sure Yvette had forgotten my name. The silent, rather delicate young Goth-dressing woman from a long-ago grade 11 class was, after the show, a strong-voiced, laughing (but very serious) actor. What a treat it was for both Diana and me to be able to lurk near the dressing rooms and speak to a couple of the principals, especially since it was a chance to make connections with our pasts.

And to think it all happened on Elgin Street. (I wonder how the play was received in The Big Smoke (Toronto), where it ran for a week or two at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.)