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'Women of the Fur Trade' by Frances Koncan

The Studio Theatre at The Stratford Festival

The Studio Theatre at The Stratford Festival

Geoffrey Coulter, Guest writer, actor and arts educator

‘Women of the Fur Trade’ is a silly, sometimes dizzy examination of a period in our country’s history…it’s a wildly entertaining, giddy and thought-provoking lesson.

I would never have considered Louis Riel and the pre-Confederation days of the fur trade and the Red River rebellion stuff of sarcasm and satire!

But then I witnessed an extraordinary and offbeat history lesson told by three women from this country’s turbulent past. A Métis fan-girl pines over the “gorgeous” but unkempt Riel while another sells furs and decries John A. Macdonald as a misogynistic colonizer with a hate-on for the Indigenous population. At the same time, a married settler woman has her eye firmly planted on Riel’s assistant, Thomas Scott. They sit on their rocking chairs, drinking and spilling tea, working, gossiping, and writing letters to the objects of their affection with hilarious results!

“Women of the Fur Trade” is equal parts rom-com, farce, theatre of the absurd (zipline mail delivery) and magic realism (radio-controlled toy trucks and letters dropping from above!). It’s a creative, engrossing, campy, and whimsical look at Manitoba’s turbulent history.

Set in a frontier fort near the “Reddish” River during the "18-somethings”, the play follows three women stuck in a single room. A battle rages outside, harkening to the beginnings of a new province. Although it’s not clear why this trio is together, one thing is sure, they can’t leave (or can they?), so they dish on Indigenous-settler relations, which side of the Métis resistance they stand on, and what this all means concerning their futures and friendships.

Métis Marie-Angelique (Kathleen MacLean) has been sent to the fort by her mother for a better life and wants her heartthrob Riel to be part of it; Eugenia (Joelle Peters) is a scrappy Ojibway trapper from northern Manitoba who can more than look after herself. Cecelia (Jenna-Lee Hyde) is a settler woman waiting for her husband to return home. When heartthrobs Louis Riel (Keith Barker) and Thomas Scott (Nathan Howe) finally appear, they don't quite live up to Marie-Angelique’s hype.

Riel is the self-absorbed man Eugenia warns the other women about while Thomas Scott hides a secret. Though dressed in authentic and culturally appropriate garb by costume designer Jeff Chief, this narrative is not a pioneer tale. It’s told in modern slang and references many of today’s pop culture icons like Britney Spears, Keanu Reeves, and even Tyra Banks. An ingenious device to engage a modern audience! Playwright Frances Koncan (of Anishinaabe and Slovene descent) affirms that the many Indigenous issues from our past are still relevant today. Her characters take us beyond the history books with palpable tales of being Indigenous, white, and women, all under the watchful eye of the imperious patriarchy.

This refreshingly different play trades the traditional colonial male’s perspective for that of Indigenous women. Each character is clearly defined and recognizable from the outset, thanks to the fine acting talents of each company member. Their impeccable comedic timing and engaging, often hilarious, portrayals make singling out any one the 5-member cast a trifling and unfair exercise. Theirs is a masterclass in ensemble work.

Director Yvette Nolan deftly handles some of the dark history of this country. She tackles the themes of misogyny, racial tensions, and cultural appropriation without it feeling preachy or politically aggrandizing. She heightens the pace while effectively engaging the audience by continuously moving her actors inside the small thrust space of the Studio Theatre; no one faces any one direction for very long.

Samantha McCue’s wood-slat walls and planked stage feature a constantly flickering campfire where teacups and twigs magically appear from the earth around it. Suspended portraits of modern and historical men of fame and power (Rob Lowe, Oscar Wilde, Jean Chretien, even William Shakespeare) are strikingly incongruous as they peer down at the stage and the audience. Michelle Ramsay’s lantern-like lighting design transports us with aplomb between the fort and the forest. It’s clear where each scene takes place in such a small space.

“Women of the Fur Trade” is comedy genius. It’s a silly, sometimes dizzy examination of a period in our country’s history that most of us don’t know anything about. But it’s a wildly entertaining, giddy, and thought-provoking history class.

The production runs until July 30 in the Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival.

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