Against Canada’s dark and turbulent enviro-political backdrop, Bears glows like a wildfire: beautiful to behold, raw in power.
Matthew Mackenzie, who wrote and directed the piece, states in the program how he created Bears in the hope of continuing the “journey of discovery about our family’s Cree, Ojibwe, and Metis heritage…hidden from him by his father due to the endemic racism of the time.” He’s done his job well; what we see onstage is a taut story of one man’s desperate ramble through the Canadian Western wilderness, that is as filled with wonder for the natural world as it is filled with contempt for those who abuse it.
The play opens with the hulking protagonist Floyd (Sheldon Elter) escaping from his job on an Albertan oil rig. There’s been a workplace “accident”: we don’t know what exactly it is, but it’s enough to send Floyd trundling on foot through the wilderness, with the RCMP hot on his tail. Joining him on his journey is a septet of interpretative dancers, who embody everything he encounters on the way, from budding flowers to great grizzlies. The journey is punctuated by increasingly dramatic flashbacks involving Floyd’s mother (Christine Frederick), guiding him forward, while at the same time reminding him how it all came to this.
What makes Bears stand out is primarily its vibrant theatricality. The play literally sparkles, thanks to the canny choices made by environmental designer, T. Erin Gruber. Gruber combines projection, black light, neon and pastel, to create the rich, pulsating imagery of the Canadian back country. Filling this colourful world is the chorus of white-clad dancers, who are nothing short of incredible. Fish appear from hands and feet, prairie dogs chirp in comedic syncopation…at one point, the ensemble embodies the raging waters of Hell’s Gate, using long ropes to illustrate the constrictive nature of the current. For this sequence, and many others like it, Monica Dottor’s ingenious choreography deserves the highest of praise. So too does the inspired soundscape of Noor Dean Musani, who blends birdsong with electronica in a manner that, miraculously, is a joy for the ears. Every moment onstage is brought to life in exquisite detail, and immerses the audience in the world of the performers. Walking through the woods was never this spectacular.
Not to be outdone by the stylish set dress, Bears packs a powerful emotional punch as well. The play, as billed, is “unapologetically political”. What does this mean? It means that, in Mackenzie’s script, the voice of natural world and the voices of Canada’s First Nations twist into one, unfiltered howl of rage. Bears shows, without caveats, the transformative nature of the wilderness: it’s capacity for healing, for endowing strength…and for enduring endless abuse. The play is full of beauty, and ugliness, and the fact that one is slowly eclipsing the other is declared nothing short of monstrous. There’s nothing preachy about Bears’ environmental message, either. We are sucked into the dazzling world that Floyd encounters. As he changes, we change with him. Every injustice, every small beauty crushed, every life destroyed…it all culminates in a final line that, when delivered, reverberates through every member of the audience like a sonic boom through a kettle drum. We walk away with the power of it ringing in our ears.
Eter is a fabulous performer, and does more than his fair share of heavy lifting, both physically and mentally. He is the Indigenous every man, in a constant state of desperation and survival. Frederick as the mother is ever-present, consistently empathetic on every step of Floyd’s journey. And while the play knows when to shout, it also knows when to let the performers speak for themselves. The silent relationship between Floyd and the grizzly he encounters near the end of his odyssey is one of the play’s most memorable moments: heart-breakingly honest and simple.
Bears, as a play, makes one inclined to ramble. There’s so much to see, and so much to lose. How can we help but trip over our words? Luckily, the artists behind this powerful work have no such problem getting their point across. They are shouting it across a huge environmental landscape, one that is both charged politically, and charred industrially. The call of the wild becomes a thunderous roar onstage. It is calling for vengeance.
Bears is presented by the Alber Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre. Closing night is May 12, at the Cultch.
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