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'Women of the Fur Trade' by Frances Končan

Now onstage at the Aki Studio in Toronto's Daniels Spectrum

Kate Dalton L-R: Kelsey Kanatan Wavey, Cheri Maracle, Lisa Nasson

Joe Szekeres

“A 21st-century Canadian history lesson that hooks its audience initially with humour in its quest to begin recognizing the truth of what actually happened. Strong performances marked by an assured and confident direction.”

The time is eighteen hundred and something something. The setting is on the banks of a Reddish River in Treaty One Territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba today.

At first glance, playwright Frances Končan’s ‘Women of the Fur Trade’ is hilarious. Set inside a fort, three uniquely distinct women of voice and character use twenty-first-century slang to share their views of life, love, and the ‘beefcake’ hottie of the day, Louis Riel (Jonathan Fisher).

The married European settler Cecilia (Cheri Maracle) sits in a rocking chair in the centre. Cecilia sometimes becomes a referee between the other two in their discussions. She sometimes exudes a maternal instinct between the two and harbours an attraction to Thomas Scott (Jesse Gervais), Riel’s assistant.

Métis Marie-Angelique (Kelsey Kanatan Wavey) sits in her rocking chair to Cecilia’ s right. Marie-Angelique is Riel’s number-one fan. She becomes smitten with him and will do anything to meet her heroic idol.
Ojibwe Eugenia (Lisa Nasson) sits in her rocking chair to Cecilia’s left. When we first meet her, Eugenia is sullen; she struggles to understand why men behave as they do. Eugenia wears her heart on her sleeve. Her facial reactions usually indicate her internal feelings throughout most of the story, but that all changes as the story continues.

Through a series of misguided letter correspondence and people pretending to be someone they’re not, ‘Women of the Fur Trade’ becomes an opportunity for Toronto audiences to see a Canadian historical satire of survival and cultural inheritance shift perspective.

Končan’s script utilizes humour nicely to propel the story forward. This is smart because the modern vernacular dialogue hooks the audience into listening to what these women tell us. Some wonderfully staged moments also bring laughter. Floating down from the flies are Canada post baskets into which the women place letters to be mailed. At one point, a FedEx basket floated down, which brought laughter. The women also use sock puppets, and there’s one with a noticeable male appendage.

The mix-up in the letter correspondence provides the impetus to ponder the subtextual meaning. I did not see the Stratford summer/fall 2023 production under Yvette Nolan’s direction or the Ottawa January 2024 production under Renae Morriseau’s direction, so I don’t have any reference points as a comparison. At the talkback, we were told Morriseau was suddenly called away due to a family situation. Kevin Loring directed the Toronto production, and Joelle Peters was the assistant director.

The play takes some poetic licence in its Canadian history lesson. I am the first to admit shamefully that I can’t recall much about Riel’s influence in Canadian history. Hence, I researched before and after the production to refresh my memory about this iconic figure.

There’s a great deal to admire about this production.

For one, the visual look remains top-notch courtesy of Vanessa Imeson’s colourful and distinct costumes for each of the five characters. When I sat down, Lauchlin Johnston’s scenic design, set on risers on wooden slats in a diamond shape, caught my eye. The units of ribbons along the back wall are striking. The black-and-white pictures of men on the back wall became a sharp and stark reminder of a truth that I am prepared to admit—our Canadian history has been seen and told from the perspective of white males. These individual photographs look genuinely realistic. These men could jump out of the picture frames and take over the fort—credit to Candelario Andrade for creating this stunning visual effect.

A second glance at those pictures on the back wall reminds us that the men in these photos look privileged in their dress and comportment; this is another vital fact to remember about ‘Women.’

Kevin Loring directs the Toronto production with an assured hand. He doesn’t allow the comic moments to overshadow the simmering tension the women experience as they sit and wait in the fort for news of any kind, especially the planned Rebellion.

Under Loring’s capable hands, Cheri Maracle, Kelsey Kanatan Wavey and Lisa Nasson actively and attentively listen to each other from their rocking chairs. There’s nothing static as these ladies speak to each other with genuine conviction. They’re entirely grounded in their belief systems and ensure that others know exactly where they stand on issues.

As Louis Riel, Jonathan Fisher is a bit of a drippy jerk. His Riel is haughty, pompous, and arrogant. Jesse Gervais’s Thomas Scott becomes an appropriate foil to Fisher’s Riel. Gervais is fastidious and particular in his performance as Scott when he wants to ensure Riel’s fan mail has been answered. Gervais and Kanatan Wavey’s seduction is excellent fun, and they never overplay the moment.

One theatrical highlight involves the black and white pictures hanging on the back wall. Not only is that moment handled carefully in its execution, but it also becomes an impressive visual image I can still picture in my mind two days later as I complete this article.

The Toronto production of ‘Women of the Fur Trade’ is admirable, but the question remains—is it necessary for audiences to see it?

Yes, it is for its solid theatrical presentation.

But there’s more in this production.

Frances Končan’s vital Canadian history lesson reminds us to continue listening, paying attention, and hearing the First Nations' stories while ensuring they are never forgotten.

And Another Thought: During the talk-back session, I asked if there would be a student matinee performance of the production.

There is one. I don’t know about others.

As a retired secondary school teacher, I agree wholeheartedly that young people should see this production. Teachers and parents, be advised that some adult situations are involved. I’m not one for censorship, and I don’t believe Končan’s script should be doctored in any way for student matinées.

Nevertheless, teachers and parents, prepare young people before they come to the theatre.

Running time: approximately one hour and 50 minutes with no interval/intermission.

‘Women of the Fur Trade’ runs until April 21 in the Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East. For tickets, visit www.nativeearth.ca or call (416) 531-1402.

WOMEN OF THE FUR TRADE by Frances Končan
Original Direction: Renae Morriseau
Revival Director: Kevin Loring and Assistant Director: Joelle Peters
Stage Manager: Jackie McCormick
Lighting Designer: Jeff Harrison
Scenic Designer: Lauchlin Johnston
Projection Designer: Candelario Andrade
Costume Designer: Vanessa Imeson
Sound Designer/Composer: MJ Dandeneau

Performers: Kelsey Kanatan Wavey, Cheri Maracle, Lisa Nasson, Jonathan Fisher, Jesse Gervais

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