The Herd by Kenneth T. Williams

Tarragon Theatre

Citadel Theatre

Dave Rabjohn

Dubbed as a “homecoming,” a brilliantly meditative and cerebral play from Kenneth T. Williams arrives at Tarragon Theatre after a number of years of development and delay. ‘The Herd’ is a unique junction among themes of indigenous rights, scientific ambition, capitalism, spirituality and cultural claims. Each character in this cohesive cast evokes part of this list. A special salute goes to costume designer Samantha McCue whose work individualizes each character and helps to promote the various themes while also avoiding stereotyping.

Set in a First Nation town in Saskatchewan, miraculous white twin bisons are born into the herd. A genetic scientist and veterinarian, Vanessa Brokenhorn, is studying the unique phenomenon and is protective of her “laboratory.” The town mayor sees an opportunity for improvement monies, while an overzealous blogger sees exploitation for fame. A local artist wants to preserve cultural interests and refers all questions to elders. Thrown into this unlikely mix is a beautiful Irish businessperson/politician who lobbies for an investment from the European Union. Anger and crises mount as mobs of fanatics descend on the town asking questions about scientific ethics, cultural forces, political motivation and true aboriginal identity.

The scientist, played by Tai Amy Grauman, is feisty and business-like as she secures her interests. She wears the dungarees and rubber boots of a farmer with a white labcoat overtop, reflecting both her bonds to the land and to the scientific community. She is at odds with almost everyone including her brother, the mayor, played by Dylan Thomas-Bouchier. He wears local garb along with professional football team logos suggesting his interest in Canadian sports culture. A colourful vest subtlety reflects his leadership position.

The Irish entrepreneur, energetically played by Cheyenne Scott, is dressed in all business, with a touch of unreserved sensuality. Her Katy Perry-like rapid costume changes are part of her brassy political and business-power façade. A particular dialogue with the artist Sheila, played by Shyanne Duquette, was deeply moving as they discuss family and relationships even when they are from different worlds. Sheila wears loose, informal gear representative of an artist working in various materials.

The character of Coyote Jackson, Todd Houseman, is perhaps the most acute of the cast. Shrewd and hyperactive, he plays the character with excited force. He represents the highly sensitive issue of “pretendian” or false identity claims. In this context, even his costume is mocked as a decades old reference to the “Oka” crisis – a suggestion of stereotyped history. His red bandannas, sometimes on head and sometimes on ankles, contrast with multilayered denim. Bringing technology into his lust for fame, he looks more foolish with a camera bouncing on an angular selfie stick.

Pace was problematically slow in parts of the first half. Some comic opportunities were solidly embraced, such as the hilarious “leader voice” mockery by Sheila but some others lost momentum. Visual images on creative “screens” gave an eerie, but important background – especially the slow movement of the bison herd. Coyote’s whipping up of the unseen crowd was a major political factor in the play – sound effects suggested their influence, but more visual suggestions around the periphery would lend stronger drama. The use of the screens in this sense would add tension.

The playwright notes that a suggestion from former artistic director Richard Rose about writing an “indigenous” ‘Enemy of the People’, was a happy challenge. Ibsen’s play also features the issues of balancing public good with economics and cultural responsibility. This solid cast, brilliantly costumed, managed to balance these many difficult themes that resonate in our world today.

‘The Herd’ by Kenneth T. Williams

Players: Shayanne Duquette, Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman, Cheyenne Scott, Dylan Thomas-Bouchier
Director: Tara Beagan
Set Design: Andy Moro
Costume Design: Samantha McCue
Lighting Design: Spike Lyne
Sound Design: Mishelle Cuttler
Runs through June 12, 2022.

Tickets at tarragontheatre.com

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