When you meet a grizzly…. Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears

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

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you run into a grizzly, keep the following in mind: They have an aversion to authority. They never back down. And there’s no use playing dead.

“There’s no such thing as neutral in the bear world,” the sassy eight-member chorus of Bears tells us near the outset about their muscular stand-up protagonist Floyd

In the theatre world, Matthew MacKenzie’s spirited, highly imaginative “dark multi-media comedy about the Kinder Morgan pipeline” — now, like Floyd, headed west on a journey to the Pacific — is a veritable bear of a play. You just can’t come up against Bears and play dead.

I saw Bears first in 2015, when the pipeline was the Northern Gateway.  Seeing it this weekend in a new version directed by the playwright (for Punctuate! Theatre and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts), I was struck again by its rarity. Bears is as non-neutral a sighting in these parts as a crocus popping out of the snow on Groundhog’s Day in Edmonton, to invoke a simile Floyd might have used (if his standard in similes dropped a few notches). 

MacKenzie’s play, which had a brief run this weekend before the westward tour continues, is about this place now, it’s politically feisty, it’s rhapsodic in its own weird way. And it’s got its own quirky sense of humour too, exercised both in the poetic text and the multi-media resources it brings to bear on setting it forth on the stage. It’s a strange and beguiling combo, especially since Bears is also a chase (exeunt pursued by police and oil industry hit-men). How often do see a multi-media production that is amused by multi-media theatre? Without losing the magic of it?

It starts by running with the Indigenous sense of a sacred harmony with Nature, a vision of man in the natural world. Floyd, a Métis oil patch worker who’s a prime suspect in a “workplace accident,” is in flight through the wilds of Alberta and B.C. As his journey through wilderness proceeds along the route of the Kinder Morgan pipeline through the Rockies, the Fraser Valley and on to the Pacific, hunted by the RCMP and armed company enforcers, he is becoming the natural creature with whom he most identifies: a grizzly.

It’s hard to see how this would work without the charismatic  Sheldon Elter as the fierce but pure-hearted Floyd. Both verbally and physically he’s big and compelling, chronicling his experience in the third person while he’s participating in it. Floyd’s cubhood memory bank is tied to images of his mother. And in the person of Christine Sokaymoh Frederick (artistic director of Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts), she’s a dream-like onstage witness (and occasional commentator) to every near-fatal collision with the Mounties, or whitewater, or tailings pond, or avalanche.

The shimmering scenic world created by T. Erin Gruber, an expert in video and projection technology, is glow-in-the-dar. It invokes mountains and glaciers, the Northern Lights, dappled alpine meadows, the starry firmament. It’s populated by the chorus of dancers, and the inventive and witty choreography of Monica Dottor. They’re flowers and trees; they’re bees and chickadees, herds of bison, prairie dogs, otters, killer whales, salmon, elk and butterflies: Floyd has friends in high and low places in the wilderness (and a minus quantity in the city).

The players, mostly Indigenous, are as lyrical in movement as they’re sassy in their verbal annotations. A grouse couple change their minds about getting it on: “Nothing kills a mood like a fucking clear-cut,” notes the chorus.

And there’s even an erotic pas de deux  — Dottor’s choreography is enchanting — when Floyd meets his first grizzly friend (Gianna Vacirca).

The play doesn’t sidle up to, or tiptoe around, the environmental argument. It gets mad and steps up boldly, crashing through oil company assumptions and rhetoric like Floyd through a cedar forest. 

The irreplaceable beauty and bounty of the land is what Bears conjures, in sight and sound, movement, music (Noor Dean Musani), and MacKenzie’s funny prose/poetry. Pipelines put Nature at risk. The stakes are high and Bears is about the stakes. 





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