Nature at risk: Bears, Matthew MacKenzie’s “dark comedy about pipelines” is back to provoke

Sheldon Elter in Bears. Photo by Alexis McKeown

By Liz Nicholls,

Three years ago Edmonton audiences found themselves in the presence of the season’s (make that the decade’s) only “multi-disciplinary comedy about the Northern Gateway Pipeline.” And they watched, spellbound, as a man on a flight through the Canadian wilderness, from “the City of Former Champions” to the blue Pacific, was magically transformed by his journey.

That was Bears. In Matthew MacKenzie’s highly imaginative highly argumentative ode to Nature, Floyd, a Métis oil worker who’s the prime suspect in a workplace accident, is on the lam. The RCMP, enlisted by oil company enforcers, are in hot pursuit. And as Floyd bolts through cedar glade and icy stream, melting glacier and alpine meadow, into very heart of Nature, his senses are gradually tuned to a higher natural frequency. Is he, can he be?, turning into the creature with whom he feels the closest rapport? “If there was one thing Floyd loved, it was bears,” says Floyd of himself.

If there is one thing playwright MacKenzie loves, apparently, it’s a theatrical provocation with a political edge. He is, after all, the author of SIA, which casts a skeptical eye on Canuck naiveté in the big wide dangerous world. And Bust, which premiered in 2017 at Theatre Network, was set in the still-smouldering world of post-Boom post-fire Fort Mac.

Now, at a moment in history when the very word “pipeline” has a Molotov reverb, Bears is back in Alberta, fresh from a hit run in Toronto. Directed by the playwright and co-produced by Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, it happens as part of the latter’s annual Rubaboo Festival.

In this new iteration Floyd, again embodied definitively by the magnetic Métis artist Sheldon Elter (Métis Mutt), is on the run once more, pursued by the RCMP and a posse of Kinder Morgan hunters. This time out Floyd’s path to the sea takes him through Jasper National Park, and along the Fraser River, to Burnaby, B.C.

Yes, it’s the contentious Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline route, whose existence and expanding course through beautiful, high-risk Indigenous heritage land is the stuff of elections and electioneering, political manipulation, inflammatory rhetoric from provincial premiers.

MacKenzie, back in his home town, is bemused to consider the double-barrelled political surprise, post-2015, that continues to fuel the explosive topicality of his play. One: the unexpected NDP victory in Alberta. Two: the Alberta NDP as vociferous pipeline advocates with a particular stake in Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion.

He finds disingenuous and misleading oil company arguments that the pipeline is an established feature of the Canadian landscape that never elicited First Nations objections till recently. “When it was built in ‘50s protests were forbidden by the Indian Act,” notes MacKenzie, whose ethnicity includes Cree, Métis and Iroquois roots.

As MacKenzie has said, Bears was inspired partly by a passionate attachment to the multiple beauties of the Alberta wilds — fuelled by homesickness whenever he’s somewhere else (he’s a grad of Montreal’s National Theatre School). Partly, it was the urging of family heritage on his mother’s side, discovered by chance.

His mother Beth Wishart MacKenzie is a a film-maker whose doc Lana Gets Her Talk chronicles indigenous artist Lana Whiskeyjack as she creates a multi-media sculpture to capture the enduring trauma of residential schools (Losing My Talk). The Whiskeyjack/ Wishart MacKenzie collaboration is installed at La Cité francophone during Rubaboo (through Sunday).

Tracing My Great Grandmother’s Footsteps, a 2012 historical novel by Mackenzie’s father Vern Wishart, details the vivid moment in 1841 when his great great great-grandmother Kisikaciwan (Cree for “Saskatchewan”) passed through Edmonton en route to Oregon. As her party re-stocked, she sat on the banks of her namesake river for three days, and wept.

At the core the Indigenous inheritance “is about looking at the land as sacred,” says MacKenzie, Punctuate! Theatre’s new artistic producer, who repairs to nature at times of personal crisis. “It’s part of me.” At least half his cast of 10 are Indigenous performers.

Christine Sokaymoh Frederick (standing) and Sheldon Elter in Bears. Photo by Alexis McKeown

Bears is set in motion by the visceral physicality of Elter; “Toronto was blown away by him; he’s such a powerful actor!” says MacKenzie. A sort of Greek chorus of dancers evokes the natural world, including the snow storms, the meadows, the animals and birds, the butterflies and the salmon, that Floyd encounters on his tumultuous journey.

An “environmental design” by projection technology expert T. Erin Gruber, who counterpoints projection and cut-outs, again chronicles Floyd’s progress. 

Ainsley Hillyard, the creative muse of Edmonton’s Good Women Dance Collective, choreographed the 2015 production in a playfully stylized way. This time the chorus, increased to a corps of eight from five, is choreographed by Monica Dotter. “It’s totally different,” thinks MacKenzie, “more comedic….”

Noor Dean Muslin’s electronic soundscape again conjures every part of Floyd’s journey to the sea. But the music has changed. Last time, a park ranger from the ‘20s (Bryce Kulak) delivered vintage cabaret songs at the keyboard from time to time. This time, the dancers sing: “they had no idea; it was a late add-on,” laughs MacKenzie. His brother Aaron MacKenzie has contributed a doo-wop song.

But the chief dramatic development is that Floyd’s mother, Mama Bear, talked about in the 2015 production, is physically present, an onstage witness to the action. She’s played by Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, the artistic director of Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts. Her own play for kids, Minosis Gathers Hope — about the struggles of a young Métis girl — is touring theatres and First Nations reserves alongside Bears.



Theatre: Punctuate! and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts

Written and directed by: Matthew MacKenzie

Starring: Sheldon Elter, with Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Zoe Glassman, Alida Kendell, Aimee Rushton, Rebecca Sadowski, Kendra Shorter, Gianna Vacirca

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Saturday, with Saturday and Sunday 1:30 p.m. matinee performances of Minosis Gathers Hope

Tickets: 780-409-1910,


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