By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s always started with jokes. A lot of jokes. “What do you call an Indian on a bike?”
And since the man onstage is remembering his time as a teenage stand-up comic, empowered by audience laughter, the old advice ‘write what you know’ takes on a queasier, more accusatory hue: ‘write what everybody knows’. After all, that’s what stereotypes are, the Coles Notes of cultural perception.
Sheldon Elter’s Métis Mutt, which started small in 2001 as a theatre school experiment, has always put the punch back in punch line. In every incarnation since, on stages small and large, here and abroad, jokes and laugh tracks and their harsh implications for him, and for us his audience, have framed a harrowing true story of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, bullying, racism.
Like its formidably talented Indigenous creator and star, Métis Mutt has a history. It’s travelled far and long and wide in the last 17 years, playing along the complex fault lines of comedy and tragedy, the personal and the social, the past and the present. And now, in this stunning new production directed by Ron Jenkins, even the punch lines have punch lines.
What was an artful one-man show with a startling — no, horrifying — story to tell, in a furious weave of song and memory and dramatic scene, has become a high-impact coming-of-age play that’s really come of age.
How many anecdotes does it take to make a play? Hard to tell when they become a multi-layered story. What you’ll see onstage at Theatre Network, one of the first homes of Métis Mutt from the start, is a bona fide play, a fully realized theatrical world full of vivid characters — aunties and uncles, step-dads and cousins, schoolyard bullies, a dad who’s a terrifying drunk on a short fuse, a much-abused mom who steps bravely up to a realization. And a little Métis kid named Sheldon who thinks he’s failed, slides into booze and drugs, and becomes, in a variety of incarnations, the artist who’s populating the Roxy stage — with his story, and with himself at seven or 14 or 20. Or 39.
Métis Mutt has always been a love story — last-minute rescues from near-disasters by loving mentors, theatre, powerful Native spirituality, and a wife named Kristi (the theatre world knows her as actor/ Azimuth and Maggie Tree co-artistic director Kristi Hansen). And, in its variously fragmented way, it’s always been a show about perception, its ripple effects, the ways it can change. The laugh track has always been its chief satirical weapon. There’s a new punch line now. What do you call an Indian on a bike? A cyclist. But it’s not just that.
In sight and sound Jenkins’ production conjures a world that is both infinite and claustrophobic: northern Alberta with its small town pool halls, its living rooms, its wilderness, its back yards through which a grizzly might wander.
Ahah! And its theatre school, where 19-year-old Elter is more of an anomaly than the bear in his uncle’s yard. There are hilarious moments where Elter, in reality a dexterous physical performer, attempts the moves in a Grant MacEwan dance class. And there’s a charming little moment when the theatre school grad sings a bit from Sondheim’s Marry Me A Little in reference to Kristi. “I was starting to like this shit,” he grins, amused at the thought of his reinvented self as a theatre guy. And that, after all, is why we’re experiencing this story on this stage in this season.
Tessa Stamp’s design is beautiful, dominated by a sort of stretched skin semi-circular screen (with inverted teepee buttresses) that lights like a window into a life. And it feels alive, as animated by the virtuoso projections of T. Erin Gruber. Aaron Macri’s soundscape, with its Indigenous rhythms, is a dramatic participant, too.
Elter is a charismatic performer onstage, with a smile like a lighthouse beacon. The multiple characters he conjures for us, in judiciously edited voice and gesture, are filtered and propelled, in a more clearly narrative way, through the memory of the grown-up artist before us.
What feels different now is the way comedy and tragedy live together in Métis Mutt, less confrontationally perhaps but more fruitfully. There’s a universal human reverb to its sense of self-reinvention, day by day. And we get to discover it along with the artist onstage. It’s a smart, brave, and beautiful piece of work. You shouldn’t miss the chance to see it.
Theatre: One Little Indian, at Theatre Network
Created and starring: Sheldon Elter
Directed by: Ron Jenkins
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through March 4
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca