Factory Theatre stages a rare but uneven production of Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters.
Tomson Highway and his script for The Rez Sisters are classics of the Canadian theatre canon, but the play has been produced only rarely since it was written in 1986. For some of us, the current remount at Factory Theatre is literally a first-in-a-lifetime event. The play is celebrated as one of the first to offer an unvarnished depiction of life on an aboriginal reservation, but it’s precisely that subject matter that makes it a tough task for a theatre company to take on and do justice. Directed by Factory’s Artistic Director Ken Gass, it’s a respectably bold choice we’re glad is back on the stage. Unfortunately, this production proves why it often isn’t.
On the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Reserve on Manitoulin Island live seven women joined in a sort of sisterhood—some biological sisters or half-sisters, but all yearning for something beyond their lives on the reserve. They live from one gossipy scandal to another package in the mail from family in Sudbury to the next love affair in Wasaychigan Hill, treating each other either with jovial teasing or outright hostility. That is, until they hear that the biggest bingo game in the world is coming to Toronto. Seeing the potential for their dreams becoming reality with the help of the $500,000 jackpot, they raise the money for the trip and make the journey, hopes and stakes both high.
The characters are rich, their situations specific to a certain culture and place, and in the case of most theatre companies are assumed to be best played by First Nations actors. In Gass’s interpretation, however, actors of many ethnicities take on these roles. It’s an interesting move Gass takes with Highway’s blessing, even encouragement, taking a quintessentially native Canadian story and transforming it into something more universal. And though it’s true that women everywhere—no matter what nationality, temperament, racial background, hometown, or family history—can relate to how these women become consumed by their dreams, from a new toilet to a new life, most of the performances ring false. In fact, and we’re not sure if this is a direct result of cultural background or not, the most believable characters were the ones played by aboriginal cast members—specifically Michaela Washburn as the former biker gang–member Emily Dictionary, Billy Merasty as the looming presence of the bird spirit Nanabush, and the heartbreaking but captivating Cara Gee as Zhaboonigan Peterson. Gee, who won the Spotlight Award at this past SummerWorks Festival for her role in Stitch, as a young mother and porn star, is just as enthralling as a young girl with a mental disorder and an uncanny ability to communicate with spirits. She is certainly a performer to watch.
Most of the first act is filled with moments of slapstick and exaggerated posing, undercutting the threads of anger and frustration that run through the script. The second act is much more engaging, allowing several of the characters to reveal more of themselves in powerful monologues underneath a stark white spotlight. An odd piece of audience participation is thrown in as well, with an unclear purpose, but it does give Merasty a chance to sparkle (in a bedazzled tuxedo jacket, no less).
Women can play male characters, and vice versa. Straight actors can play gay characters, and vice versa. The idea of non-aboriginal actors playing aboriginal characters is not far-fetched or offensive—as long, as with any performance, as the actors and performances are believable. Unfortunately, this is where an innovative show falls flat.