The Rez Sisters

The Stratford Festival

David Hou

David Rabjohn

Congratulations to The Stratford Festival for insightful creativity in developing live theatre for a covid world. A soaring brilliant white tent was only a part of the unique outdoor experience that subtlety embraced social restrictions. The Festival could have found simple vehicles that would easily adapt to required new measures. They went the other way.

With courage and boldness the festival produced Tomson Highway’s 1986 searing story of ‘The Rez Sisters’, a complex and weighty play concerning the lives of seven sisters on a Manitoulin reserve. Highway’s already distinguished writing is further elevated by an ensemble cast of diverse talent, energy and unremitting power.

We first meet Nanabush who stumbles on stage, unkempt and ill, crawling under a tarpaulin and sits, eyes furtive and suspicious with birdlike movement, skillfully played by Zach Running Coyote. Going through wild throes as a sickly patient, he sets the stage for tragedy and suspicion throughout the story. Nanabush develops into a kind of muse or indigenous Greek chorus symbolically reflecting many of the more horrific moments of the sisters’ lives. Running Coyote’s brilliant physicality offers the choreography that punctuates the many struggles on the reserve.

Pelajia is the first of the slow train of sisters on stage – some actual sisters, others half sisters or sisters-in-law reflecting the close-knit community. Played with crackling energy by Jani Lauzon, she is a contractor equally comfortable with both hammer and knitting needles. Like many of the sisters, she hates the reserve and longs for a better life, perhaps in Toronto. Her sister, Philomena (Tracey Nepinak) can be both dark and brooding (she longs to know anything about the child she gave up) and equally hilarious as she also longs for the gleaming porcelain toilet bowl that is her holy grail. Annie Cook, played joyfully by Nicole Joy-Fraser enters frantically and is teased for non-stop energy as she yearns for a singing career.

The complexities of relationships start to form as we meet Marie-Adele, perhaps the most tragic figure, played by Lisa Comarty, who has fourteen children and is clearly dying of cancer. She stole her sister Annie’s boyfriend and the wounds are still raw. Scenes begin to break down into raucous battles as various tensions are exposed and fight director Anita Nittoly’s remarkable choreography mirrors the many conflicts. The cacophony of anger rises, while lights flash until it is halted by Zhabooningan. Played subtlety and sympathetically by Brefny Cariboo, Zha is intellectually disabled and has been horribly raped by two white men. She is embraced by her sisters and is adopted by the unpopular Veronique (Christine Frederick) who portrays her dark character with both meaness and hope for more understanding.

Bingo becomes the epicentre of dreams, hopes, and delusion. Never far from their minds, bingo is not a social occasion. It is the vehicle for moving forward in big or small ways – that shining toilet, a huge new stove, or an entire island of life. Learning of “the biggest bingo in the world” the sisters put their conflicts aside and plan a masterful odyssey to Toronto. A leitmotif of marching, they make their way to Toronto, experiencing obstacles and pain reminiscent of their reservation lives. The bingo day climax ends with an audience participation surprise, the hollowness of smashed dreams and ultimate death. The circle returns to Manitoulin. Some part of this tragedy slightly softens anger and hate.

Sophie Tang’s set design offered a thrust stage with multiple surprises. Each of the many chairs was unique – sometimes representing the fourteen children, other times cleverly manifesting a symbolic prison. The translucent tarp diversly served as hospital bedding, a babe in arms, or a funereal shroud. Wayne Kelso’s sound design was delicate and haunting – rash only when it had to be.

Director Jessica Carmichael wielded a heroic baton. She found a delicate balance between letting her dynamic ensemble spin and create at will and finding a focus that roots the story. Ms. Carmichael’s own recent pain gives authority and intimacy to this production. Using all the tools offered by Tomson Highway – Cree or Ojibway language and indigenous dance – she made us understand the circles of living. As mentioned in the program, this production properly gives a nod to recent tragic discoveries and young people who now yearn for a better future as the sisters do. Some circles should remain and some circles should be broken.

Upon discovering Emily’s pregnancy, Zha creates slivers of mirth as she sneaks up on her friend and says hello to the little unknown. What an honest way to peer into this world – with both unrelenting sadness and with mirthful silliness.

‘The Rez Sisters’ by Tomson Highway

Produced by The Stratford Festival

Players – Brefny Caribou, Lisa Cromarty, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Irene Poole, Jani Lauzon, Kathleen MacLean, Tracey Nepinak, Zach Running Coyote

Director – Jessica Carmichael

Sound Director – Wayne Kelso

Set and lighting design – Sophie Tang

Fight director – Anita Nittoly

Stage manager – Bona Duncan

Tickets at stratfordfestival.ca

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