Wednesday 18 October 2017

Thanks For Giving is intriguing timely stuff
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Kevin Loring's play Thanks For Giving is a clever riff on five words designed around traditional Thanksgiving family gatherings. The word thanksgiving (and its connotations) to start. But the title also suggests how forgiving is central to relationships. And how acts of giving to one another invite us to give thanks when so blest. 

TFG is ACT's 12th Silver Commission -- meaning it's a custom-ordered script. Using a variety of vernacular, Loring is native, indigenous, first nation, aboriginal, Indian. He hies from the Lytton area where the South Thompson and Fraser Rivers merge. His band's reach is from Spuzzum to Ashcroft and they are known as the N'lakap'amux. 

As if in the manner of Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian, Loring's target is the smug, self-appointed Eurocentric / domination take on Canadian history. Where better emblemized than in the recent delirium over this country's "Canada 150" celebrations ?  I.e. this country's entire existence, qua Canada, is but one per cent of the life of the land's aboriginal occupants whom experts estimate arrived 15,000 years ago or more. 

What the show's about : Stories, and how they're told. Symbols, totems, folklore and how such beliefs and mythologies intersect with "the real world" of 2017. To get us there, Loring follows oral traditions that resist strict linear timelines and organized plots from exposition to rising action to climax. The style is more roving and oblique and migratory, skipping across generations, linking bits of one group's stories with another's and back again. 

The script's protagonist is the elder Nan (Margo Kane) who married, on the rebound, second husband Clifford (Tom McBeath). He's white, just happened to show up at a Cariboo pow-wow decades back all tricked out in Canadian Navy dress. They fell riotously in lust and soon marry despite the fact Nan, with twin young children, is of the earth while Clifford wants it to be for him. 

Bear Dancer (Shayama-Priyah), mom of three cubs about to be murdered by predator Clifford.
Emily Cooper photo.
On surface this is a Norman Mailer Why Are We In VietNam? look-alike as the various memes about male dominion, chauvinism, and colonialism are seen through the prism of a grizzly bear hunt -- or, more accurately, a grizzly murder of a mama bear and her three cubbies for their body parts.

The rest is almost a de rigueur look at family matters across the generations regardless of DNA : alcoholism; gay partnership; repressed death anger; greed -vs- generosity, generational conflict on countless levels just because...

What Loring brings to the stage : As a Canadian-American, I was immediately struck by the nagging question Why? playwright Loring chose the USA Pilgrim story to magnify and amplify granddaughter Marie's enumerated grievances against the myriad Euro-oppressors who have marginalized indigenous folk on this continent for centuries. 

E.g. No question Loring would be fully exposed to the works of the late Richard Wagamese from the Sepwepemc [Shuswap nation] village of Tk'emlups [Kamloops] just up the road from the N'lakap'amux domain. And know, too, of indigenous stalwart Wab Kinew -plus- would no doubt be influenced by superstar Orenda novelist Joseph Boyden (regardless of the blood quantum unresolved issues Boyden attracts). Fact is, there is no debate the historical landscape of Canada is rich-for-harvest of the same themes of exploitation and subjugation as those wrought by Gov. William Bradford of Massachusetts and the Pilgrims back in the 1620's. 

Grandma Nan (Margo Kane) gives pointed advice to granddaughter Marie (Tai Amy Grumman) as they prepare Thanksgiving dinner.
Emily cooper photo.

For its part Wiki tells us that "...French settlers, having crossed the ocean and arrived in Canada with explorer Samuel de Champlain from 1604...held feasts of thanks. They even formed the Order of Good Cheer and held feasts with their First Nations neighbours, at which food was shared." Sounds chummy, but I bet there's ugliness there, too. Iroquois & Huron at the same table? Not even remotely possible in 1604. Not much more likely today I'd wager.

No real matter, any of this, just a curiosity Why? the imported USA Pilgrim model he chooses upon which to sharpen his decidedly-Canadian cultural knife.

Production values that shine bright : Encountering friends after the show I remarked "I've probably never seen a Vancouver play in which the set just about steals the show from everything / everyone else."

As a Silver Commission piece, Loring worked daily with all production crew to create his desired gestalt : overall set; scene particulars; lighting; costuming; blocking. Set Designer Ted Roberts trekked to Lytton and forested some birch and aspen trees to create the main woodsy effect. All individual scenes are done within this overarching backdrop as mini-sets downstage right-centre-left. From simple woodblock to an IKEA kitchen island to a frumpy den settee beneath a hunter's trophy wall above the fireplace -- these are the focal points all set with the powerful woods behind imposingly, impressively as their backdrop. 

In the result Messrs. Loring & Roberts & lighting designer Jeff Harrison have put together a compelling visual space that informs every scene. Behind is a lookalike chiaroscuro scrim as if borrowed from Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson's iconic The Jack Pine. (Must mention too that Harrison's follow-spots on the individual speakers throughout the piece were choice.)

Acting pin spots : Margo Kane as Nan (for whom Loring specifically designed the role) was choice. "You can't choose your family, so why not love them?" she asks poignantly. Her telling of bear stories linked to her grandmother's singing 120 years back -- as recorded then by ethnographers and re-produced on stage here -- was enchanting.

As 2nd hubby Clifford -- step-dad to alcoholic Sue (Andrea Menard) and the twin grandkids Marie (Tai Amy Grumman) & John (caacumhi -- Aaron John Wells) -- Tom McBeath delivered a journeyman performance no question. Redneck mutha who "done his best" and loved Nan "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen". 

A touching after-death rebirth dance between hubby Clifford (Tom McBeath) and the wise wife elder Nan (Margo Kane).
Emily Cooper photo.
Menard as daughter Sue was a strong show with a lyrical aromatic guitar-strung voice. Altogether engaging whether acting drunk or straight. 

Good strong efforts by everyone, but no question a buzzer on the day was Shyama-Priya as the Bear Dancer. Enchanting, magical blocking & footwork, not to mention Samantha McCue's dead-on costume design. Bear Dancer's woozy dream sequence with the drunken Sue plus her end-of-the-the show mesmera with Grandma Nan were both breath-takers.

N.B. note re: the eff-word. Quite frankly I am tired of writing this but I shall do so ad nauseam. If a character is to say "I am fucking sick of you!" the emphasis goes like this : "I am fucking sick of you!" It does not go "I am fucking sick of you!"  In this regard Thanks For Giving is the absolute worst offender in that regard seen in nearly six seasons of reviewing professional Vancouver theatre shows. Please, people, get it right. There is nothing magic about the word "fucking". No one cares. It hasn't been offensive for about 60 years. George Carlin made reference to it popular with his Shit. Fuck. Piss. Cunt. Cocksucker. Motherfucker. Tits. In the result he defused its impact forever. It's just a filler. The word(s) it's connected to are the important ones. Emphasize them not it.  

Who gonna like : The matinee blue-rinse crowd quite liked the performance they saw today. Lots of hoots at the zinger repartee as among Nan and Clifford and the cousins.

Having just enjoyed Thanksgiving at our Cariboo cabin with family, no question all the joys & bitches & frustrations & disappointments & epiphanies occur, as they do every year. Turkey, wine, farts, drop-leaf table mishaps with broken wineglasses, recriminations, reconciliations -- a kind of woeful rejoicing all of us undertake face-on and try our best to take little note of over a greasy cabin breakfast come next morn.

Thanks For Giving reminds us how love is the sinew that binds whatever else shards us. Take in the trees and the lights and the love in this piece. You will bear the rest of the day more peaceably, no question. Huzzah! to ACT for championing Kevin Loring and his rich-&-rewarding insights into native culture in our land.

Particulars : Produced by Arts Club Theatre. On until November 4th.  At the Granville Island stage.  Run-time some two hours including intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Kevin Loring, Playwright / Director.  Ted Roberts, Set Designer.  Samantha McCue, Costume Designer.  Jeff Harrison, Lighting Designer.  James Coomber, Sound Designer.  Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg. Angela Beaulieu, Stage Manager.  Colleen Totten, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Leslie Dos Remedies (Sam). Tai Amy Grumman (Marie). Margo Kane (Nan). Tom McBeath (Clifford). Andrea Menard (Sue).  Shyama-Priyah (Bear Dancer).  Deneh'Cho Thompson (Clayton).  caachumi - Aaron M. Wells (John).  

Addendum :  Coincidentally, the day before I saw the play and did my review, the giveaway sidewalk newsie Vancouver Metro ran a feature entitled "Upcoming guide props Indigenous writing style", its subhed "Manual details how to edit traditional stories".  It's fundamentally a review by editor Greg Younging of his own book.  From para's 6-10 this interesting perspective from both Younging and indigenous author Lee Maracle whom he quotes.

Younging says even the way a story unfolds is unique -- while conventional poem and prose formats are largely European, Indigenous Peoples are more often inspired by the oral tradition.

"There's a world of difference about how we express ourselves," says Younging, who began building the guide [Elements of Indigenous Style : A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples] in 1999 when he was managing editor at Theytus Books.

"You wouldn't, say, have a protagonist and conflicts coming to a resolve at the end. Indigenous stories are often more often open-ended and lead to further storytelling.

"There are examples I give in the style guide, like Lee Maracle's book Sundogs, which she says was written in an oral style, the way an elder talks. Very often when an elder is speaking, he or she may seem to stray off the storyline or the point that they're making and then come back to it later."

The 67-year-old Maracle says she still battles editors over what she considers an Indigenous approach to text.

When a non-Indigenous editor suggested changing the order of a paragraph in her latest book, the acclaimed poet, author and academic braced herself for a long conversation.

"I said, 'That's not the (sentence) that we would put there. We wouldn't put that there. It's a secondary thought. For you it's primary because that's how you are. But that's not how we are,' recounts Maracle, among writers appearing at the International Festival of Authors, starting Thursday in Toronto.

"So we had a long conversation about it. But we have to have these long conversations in order for them to get what we're doing," [she added].

Albeit the end of Thanks For Giving combines Clifford's wake with the birth of grand-twins -- this would seem to bring the show to a "resolve" -- the final mesmera bear dance with Nan leaves the viewer wondering, for sure, whither Nan without Clifford, with new great-grand-kids, with her generations-old embrace of Spirit Bear who Indigenous tradition has it is the twins' "guardian angel" in Euro-speak. Quite open-ended an approach with stories yet to tell.


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