Stage Door Review

Bears

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

written & directed by Matthew MacKenzie 

Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre, Factory Theatre, Toronto

February 28-March 17, 2019

Mama: “No one can frighten us. We frighten ourselves.”

After a highly acclaimed premiere in Toronto last January, Bears by Matthew MacKenzie returns for a second run as part of Factory Theatre’s CrossCurrents Canada season. Bears received eight 2018 Dora Award nominations and won for Outstanding Production and Outstanding New Play. Yet, Bears is not a conventional play. It really is a one-man show enhanced by the choreography for eight female dancers. As a one-man show, Bears would work perfectly well. It would be more concentrated and would rely on our imaginations to fill in what the narrator sees rather than on the presence of dancers to enact it. Yet, the use of dancers considerably lightens the mood, whether for good or ill, and turns the world of the play into an objective reality outside of the narrator’s mind.

The story concerns Floyd (Sheldon Elter), a Métis oil patch worker who is the prime suspect in a workplace accident which may have been deliberate sabotage. Floyd escapes through the Western Canadian wilderness while being chased by both the RCMP and private bounty hunters. Giving vivid descriptions of his journey, Floyd makes his way through the Rockies to the British Columbian coast.

Bears is a tale in the mode of magic realism so we should not be surprised that Floyd is assisted on his journey by the flora and fauna he encounters, which are increasing endowed with anthropomorphic goals and desires the longer Floyd travels. Floyd simultaneously notices increasing changes in himself. Always a lover of bears and even named “Little Cub” by his mother (Tracey Nepinak), Floyd perceives ursine alterations in his senses, body and instincts.      

Floyd’s flight from the oil sands project metaphorically becomes a symbol of Floyd’s flight from everything that exploiting the oil sands and the Trans Mountain Pipeline represent. Not only is no method of oil extraction accident free, an accident causes more profound destruction than oil-covered birds. It also destroys the biosphere of micro-organisms on which larger organisms survive and and thus can wipe out whole colonies of animals long after a spill. Floyd experiences and explains all this every time he encounters an example and the chorus of dancers act out in dance what he describes.

Monica Dottor’s choreography consists primarily in having her chorus of eight mimic the behaviour of the plants, animals and even the landscape that Floyd encounters. Clad in designer Brianna Kolybaba’s imaginative tunics of seemingly random nets and knots, the chorus can morph in an instant from prairie dogs to chickadees to flowers. Seldom does the troupe require props  for their depictions but when they do it is mostly for comic effect as when they don face-covering petals to imitate flowers or wiggly white moustaches when they very accurately play river otters. 

As director Matthew MacKenzie has Elter remain seated firmly in his chair stage left throughout almost all of the action. With one notable exception the chorus of dancers interact with him rather than he with them. The one exception is a fantastic encounter between Floyd and a she-grizzly. Gianna Vacirca has remarkable dances on her own as the female grizzly obvious in oestrus, and Dottor has been extraordinarily inventive in choreographing an erotic pas de deux between Elter and Vacirca in which Elter remains seated the entire time yet supports Vacirca in various lifts and poses, all of which non-explicitly suggest intimacy between the two.

Elter gives a wonderful performance. The warmth of his voice and the tone of injured innocence immediately makes Floyd such a sympathetic character we don’t care what it is he might have done to cause such a hunt for him.  Elter is a master of capturing the sense of wonder of a man revelling in the beauty and power of nature as he allows the confining trappings of civilization to fall from him. Elter has the ability to change his facial expression from that of an adult to that of a child in the sections when Floyd recalls his life with his mother and what she taught him. Elter has a powerful yet welcoming presence and it is a privilege to have seen his work in two plays – this and MacKenzie’s After the Fire – in the space of only three months.

Tracey Nepinak is a genial presence as Floyd’s mother. Her presence is not strictly necessary for the narrative, but Napinak embodies maternal and ancestral wisdom so easily as well as symbolizing Floyd’s connection with his past that her performance justifies itself.

The chorus of eight dance with an ideal combination of naturalness and accuracy.  MacKenzie has them speak a few lines the better to integrate them into the show, but that is not really necessary. The chorus functions best an embodiment of the natural world that Floyd loves and wants to care for.

The action plays out in an oval performance space bordered on three sides by large paper cut-outs representing rocks and mountains created by “environmental designer” T. Erin Gruber. Gruber imaginatively lights these shapes to represent the various environments Floyd encounters as well as Floyd’s varying moods. Noor Dean Musani’s sound design is general abstract and ominous but occasionally veers into the realm of pop for certain types of animals which may lighten the effect of the story, though we may wonder why the story’s impact has any need of being lightened. 

Bears can be enjoyed simply for the joy of experiencing Elter’s performance. One can ponder MacKenzie’s parable up to a certain point, but it is a riddle as insoluble as the dilemma of how to preserve nature as well as exploit its power. 7.7 billion people cannot suddenly return to nature. As MacKenzie has Floyd’s mother say, “Bellyaching never changed anything once it was done”. Yet, MacKenzie’s play may put the case more clearly for many people why some methods of exploiting nature are more harmful than others.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Christine Sokaymoh Frederick as Mama, Sheldon Elter as Floyd with chorus; Sheldon Elter as Floyd with chorus. © 2018 Alexis McKeown.

For tickets, visit www.factorytheatre.ca.