Stage Door Review 2021

The Rez Sisters

Thursday, August 5, 2021


by Tomson Highway, directed by Jessica Carmichael

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Canopy Theatre, Stratford

July 23-August 15, 2021 in person;

September 30-November 21, 2021 online;

January 10-September 30, 2022 online

Pelajia: “Kinda silly, innit, this business of living? But. What choice do we have?”

The best play staged outdoors at the Stratford Festival by far is the Festival’s first-ever production of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters (or Iskoonigani Isksweewak in the original Cree). Jessica Carmichael’s incisive direction and the absolutely committed performances of the entire cast prove that this 1986 play, hailed as a classic when it first appeared, still stands strong and does deserve its classic status.

The action takes place primarily on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill reserve on Manitoulin Island called “Wasy” for short. The plot is very simple. Seven women on the reserve, all avid bingo players, hear that “The World’s Biggest Bingo” is going to be held in Toronto. Once they verify the truth of the rumour, they set about raising funds for the trip and dreaming about what they will do if they win. They do make the trip to Toronto and play the fabled game. But their return to the reserve is not the one of triumph they had imagined.

In the preface to the 1988 edition of the play, Highway states that his impetus in writing the play was Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs (1968), about a group of women helping one of their own fill empty books with all the green stamps she has won. Like Tremblay’s play, the plot merely serves a clothes line on which the playwright hangs the vividly drawn portraits of his characters. Both plays depict a series of women unhappy for a wide variety of reasons and coping with this unhappiness in a wide variety of ways.

In The Rez Sisters Highway’s individualization of his seven characters is really the play’s main point. It is the pernicious habit of a majority culture in regarding a minority culture to claim that the members of the minority culture are “all the same”. In The Rez Sisters Highway demonstrates that this is emphatically not true. It may be difficult to imagine now, but Highway’s individuation of his characters was the play’s most surprising element back in 1986. It turned the entire play into a protest against the tendency of settlers to accept a homogenized view of First Nations peoples.

Other than this still-necessary overarching purpose, the play is not political in ways that we would expect such a play to be. There is no mention of the residential school system, even though Highway himself attended such a school. And there is no mention of stolen land. The women of Highway’s play accept their isolation on a reserve as a fait accompli. Highway focusses, in specific, on women struggle in their relationships with men and, in general, on how living in such isolation within a large wealthy country affects all those on the reserve.

In looking at the life of each woman, Tomson finds that living in isolation with others sets up an internal conflict that necessarily leads to unhappiness. All the women feel confined by living on the reserve and see living outside its bounds as a type of freedom. Yet, they know that with that type of freedom comes a loss of culture and identity, both of which can be preserved if only to a minor extent on the reserve.

The first words of the play are those of Pelajia Patchnose (Jani Lauzon) speaking to her sister, “Philomena, I wanna go to Toronto”. Yet, by the end after visiting Toronto and the “World’s Biggest Bingo”, Philomena (Tracey Nepinak) asks Pelajia if she still wants to go to Toronto again, and she answers, referring to her son, “I’m not so sure I would get along with him if I were to go down there.... He was telling me not to play so much bingo.” This exchange encapsulates the struggle of all the characters in feeling caught between familiar restrictions and unfamiliar restrictions.

Director Jessica Carmichael has assembled an ideal cast with no weak link. This is important because the play requires such tight ensemble work. One character however, Pelajia Patchnose, does seem to serve as the link between the audience and the world of the play. When we first see her fixing a roof she comments on how from that height she can see all the reserve and half of Manitoulin Island where it is located and beyond its boundaries as far as Espanola. Just as she has a physical overview of her place in the world, so she has a more objective view of the women on the reserve, keeping aloof from their petty battles with each other.

Jani Lauzon plays Pelajia as strong, self-reliant and independent. The only thing that upsets Pelajia is the criticism that she wears men’s clothing. She does so because she repairs houses and can’t stand criticism of her working from the others whom she calls “welfare cases”. Pelajia hates the fact that all on the reserve are stuck under the rule of a do-nothing male chief. She believes that if the roads were paved then the spirit Nanabush would come back. In the second scene of the play, however, we see that Nanabush, the shape-shifting trickster figure of Cree and other First Nations’ mythology, is still very much present. Pelajia simply can’t see him.

In complete contrast to Pelajia is her sister Philomena Moosetail played with comic verve by Tracey Nepinak. Philomena is middle-aged as is Pelajia, but rather than being tough physically and philosophically, Philomena is ultra-feminine and walks about the reserve in a dress and heeled shoes. People say she gives herself airs of a “white lady”. The comic aspect of her prissiness is that what she wants to buy if she wins at bingo is a fancy porcelain toilet. Nepinak perfectly conveys how Philomena is clueless how her haughtiness so drastically contrasts with her goals and surroundings.

Three of the other “rez sisters” are half-sisters of Pelajia and Philomena. these are Marie-Adele Starblanket, Annie Cook and Emily Dictionary. Of the older women Marie-Adele is the one who links the play to the spirit world. Marie-Adele has 14 children by the man she stole from Annie. She has cancer and knows she is dying. Her greatest fear is what will happen to her children once she is gone. It is because she is dying that she can see Nanabush, who, like the trickster figure Hermes in Greek mythology, is also a psychopomp or one who leads souls into the afterlife. Marie-Adele sees him first in the guise of a seagull, later in the guise of a nighthawk and tries to shoo him away as long as she can since from his first appearance he asks her to come with him. Lisa Cromarty gives a very moving performance as Marie-Adele, who tries to keep the extent of her suffering and worry secret from those around her even though we the audience can plainly see how much they weigh her down.

Annie Cook and Emily Dictionary are the two women of the group who have escaped the reserve but have come back. Annie is proud of her daughter who lives in Sudbury with a “white guy” and she herself is attracted to the Jewish country singer Fritz the Katz, who makes her his back-up singer. Because of that Emily calls Annie an “apple” – red on the outside, white on the inside. Annie feels insulted but can’t deny it. Nicole Joy-Fraser brings Annie vividly to life but doesn't hesitate to show that of the sisters, Annie is the least self-aware. Joy-Fraser makes Annie’s quirk of walking quickly a sign of Annie’s habit of acting without thinking.

In this she completely contrasts with Emily. Of the women of the group Emily has travelled the farthest – all the way to San Francisco – and made the most extreme break from reserve life in joining a motorcycle gang. Yet, she has come back. We discover that her return has been prompted by the death of her female lover on the highway. Kathleen MacLean plays Emily as an intense young woman, easily angered, but shows that her irritability is caused by the fact that she is still grieving.

The sixth “sister” of the play is Veronique St. Pierre, who is the sister-in-law of Emily Dictionary. Veronique knows that none of the other women like her. She assumes it is because she has no children of her own, when in fact it is that she is the biggest gossip in the reserve. Christine Frederick captures all the comedy of the character, especially her garrulousness, but she also shows that the same woman who spreads stories about everyone else is also fundamentally a good person. She adopted Zhaboonigan Peterson when the girl’s parents were killed in a car accident and Frederick uses the gentleness Veronique shows the girl as a balance to her busybodying.

Brefny Caribou gives us a sympathetic portrait of the mentally challenged Zhaboonigan.The character has an important speech about the time that she was raped with a screwdriver by two white boys. Yet, Caribou knows that Zhaboonigan is so innocent she doesn’t fully realize how horrific a thing such an attack is. As Frederick narrates she uses the same little-girl voice she uses for everyday descriptions, and only a certain hesitancy and a certain cloud that comes over her features suggests that something more terrible than she can take in has happened to her. Because of her different state of mind, Zhaboonigan is the only one besides Marie-Adele who can see Nanabush, although, unlike Marie-Adele, she doesn’t quite know what he signifies.

Nanabush is played by the only male member of the cast, Zach Running Coyote. With his lithe, nimble body he communicates Nanabush’s ominous presence through his birdlike dance and gestures. It is one of Highway’s brilliant ideas to have the actor who plays Nanabush also play the Bingo Master in Toronto. No matter how often churches use bingo for fundraising, the game is still a form of gambling and as in all gambling the house always wins. To have Nanabush as Bingo Master while Marie-Adele is playing suggests that the spirit world always wins no matter what mortals may do. This linking of bingo with death, where whatever winnings we may have in life are only temporary and meaningless, casts a symbolic shadow over the action that lends it a profundity that was clear to me for the first time in this production. Indeed, Carmichael has Nanabush or the outline of a bird appear in every scene.

Carmichael directs the play with a firm hand and is alive to the various layers of meaning that we the audience only come to appreciate piecemeal. There are two superb tests of ensemble direction in the play both of which she masters with gusto. One is the scene in Act 1 when all the women speak at once hurling insults at each other. The other is the non-verbal scene in Act 2 simultaneously depicting all the work the women undertake to make enough money to fund their trip to Toronto. Both scenes are exciting and highly theatrical. Carmichael’s one odd decision is to have Nanabush use a huge plastic sheet periodically to cover those one stage. If this is meant to represent the womens’ fear or oppression it is unnecessary since the theme is already so deeply embedded in the text.

The last time I saw The Rez Sisters was at the Grand Theatre in London in 1995. There the pace was slow and the show did not have a strong thematic thrust that carried us through its episodic structure. The opposite is true of the present production which is as exciting as it is insightful. In fact, because of the numerous scene changes Tomson demands, the play seems to have greater impact on a runway stage with minimal scenery as at Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy than on a proscenium stage where its energy feels hemmed in. The Rez Sisters is not staged as often as it should be. Given its fine acting and direction, the Stratford production of this Canadian classic is one not to miss.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: In background, Brefny Caribou as Zhaboonigan, Kathleen MacLean as Emily, Tracey Nepinak as Philomena, Lisa Cromarty as Marie-Adele, Christine Frederick as Veronique, Nicole Joy-Fraser as Annie and Jani Lauzon as Pelajia with Zach Running Coyote in foreground as the Bingo Master; Kathleen MacLean as Emily, Brefny Caribou as Zhaboonigan, Tracey Nepinak as Philomena, Lisa Cromarty as Marie-Adele and Jani Lauzon as Pelajia; Tracey Nepinak as Philomena; Brefny Caribou as Zhaboonigan; Jani Lauzon as Pelajia and Zach Running Coyote as Nanabush© 2021 David Hou.

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