Lake of the Strangers: a magical mystery tour of a vast universe. A review

Hunter Cardinal, Lake of the Strangers. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Last night I had a haunting experience. It was the summer of 1973. And a young Indigenous boy and his little brother, on a fishing expedition together, were sitting in a pool of water up among the stars. They were looking down at the world, trading memories, laughing.   

Lake of the Strangers is mysterious and magical that way. It’s a  story of an adventure in the woods en route to a great lake — an adventure full of fun and games, action and danger. And it’s a story of loss and recovery, grief and healing, and the connections that weave past, present and future into a timeless web that holds the constellations (and human stories) in place in the vast firmament.

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Welcome to a new solo play about brothers, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins… by a brother and sister team (Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal). And it’s brought to life — conjured, you might say — by one of the country’s most charismatic and resourceful young actors, Hunter Cardinal.

The production directed by Ron Jenkins, a collaboration between Naheyawin and Fringe Theatre Adventures, happens on a stage that’s a shallow pool of water in Tessa Stamp’s beautiful design: a familiar element made foreign with hidden depths and reflections, lighted stunningly by Narda McCarroll. The water shimmers in the dappled glow of projections (designed by Brianna Kolybaba) on a series of hanging, swaying strips. There’s a “splash zone” in the front row of seats.

Henry and his little bro Thomas, ages 10 and seven, who’ve snuck out of their Sucker Creek Reserve house in the middle of the night, splash through the water in high-tops and jeans. They’re en route to Lesser Slave Lake. Their goal: to catch a big fish and thereby instigate a family celebration. Cardinal singlehandedly creates the brotherly dynamic in all its giddiness, friction, playful joy: proprietorial big bro coaxing, wheedling, jollying his exasperating little bro along, improvising as he goes. Remember when we played “cowboys and us guys”? Or Manhunt, when the object is “not to be caught by the law or the dogs”?

Nature glints with life, danger, beauty. What if there were a giant bear? The world is evoked in light, flickering imagery, Aaron Macri’s sound design — and an inventive, deeply committed performance. And gradually, a multi-character story about how to find your co-ordinates, your past and future selves, in a fathomless universe accumulates. It happens in wisps of memories, Cree words with a big embrace, fragments of wisdom and advice from dad, lullaby riffs from mom, lessons learned from Nehiyaw mythology, Indigenous skills improvised for crisis moments. And it easily transposes itself from underwater to the sky and back again to earth, where two little brothers are going fishing.

The effect is riveting. The theatrical pizzaz of Jenkins’ production enhances insights that are (I return to the word) haunting, without being solemn. Somehow a crazy sense of absurdity is there too, along with awe. If ever there was a show where laughter and tears are simultaneous, this is it.

You still have a couple of chances to see Lake of the Strangers. It runs through Saturday at the Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.). Don’t let it get away. Tickets:  780-409-1910,  

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