By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“If there was one thing Floyd loved, it was bears,” says Floyd of himself near the outset of Matthew MacKenzie’s boldly weird and wonderful play.
In the course of Bears, Floyd, a Métis oil patch worker (the tremendous Métis actor Sheldon Elter), who’s the prime suspect in a “workplace accident,” will have to get out of town. He’s on a flight from authority that takes him into the glorious wilderness, from “the city of yesterday’s champions” west through the mountains to the sea. In the course of his trip — not coincidentally along the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline, with big-oil enforcers, the RCMP and bounty-hunters in hot pursuit — he will find himself becoming what he loves.
Since it’s a chase, there’s suspense. And it comes with a visceral environmental drive, so you’ll find yourself desperate for the burly protagonist to resist capture, and for Nature, beautiful and fragile, to triumph.
To journey into the heart of Nature (this is the kind of play that makes you want to use the capital-N) is to be transformed, re-born so to speak, by the continuity between man and the natural world, a harmony sacred to the Indigenous vision. And it’s conjured in the strangest, most entertainingly quirky and ingenious juxtaposition of poetic text, humorous asides, choreographed movement, light, and sound, as you’ll see in the Punctuate! Theatre production that puts the multi- back into the much-battered term multi-disciplinary. Directed by MacKenzie, it’s at the Citadel through Oct. 31.
I’ve seen Bears twice before, in very different incarnations in tiny spaces (its Pyretic Productions premiere in 2015, its Punctuate! touring version in 2018). This time, seeing how imaginatively it occupies the big thrust stage in this theatre town’s biggest playhouse (at the preview I was kindly allowed to attend), I was struck by the magical way MacKenzie’s fantasia on nature, a world in perpetual motion, is linked to the human resourcefulness on which theatre is built.
There’s Floyd himself, who has a magnetic presence in the agile person of Elter. He’s big and compelling as both narrator of memory and immediate experience, and active participant. His memories, like dreams linked to images and crises, gravitate to his mother, played onstage by Christine Sokaymoh Frederick; she’s an earthy kind of haunt-er, in jeans and boots. And Floyd’s breathless journey through Nature — through cedar forests and receding glaciers, alpine meadows, rivers, bridges, white water canyons, whirlpools, and a toxic tailings pool — is populated by the seven-member chorus of dancers, choreographed with witty, often humorously self-aware, invention by Monica Dottor.
The dancers, most of them Indigenous artists, are prairie gophers, chickadees or bees, otters, circles of bison, salmon, lake trout, grouse, wild strawberries, bighorn mountain sheep.… This is storytelling at its cheekiest; animals, birds, insects are Floyd’s allies and save his bacon again and again. But its choreographed playfulness takes hold.
Erotic pas de deux for bears aren’t a dime a dozen on theatrical stages. You just have to be pretty much wonderstruck when it happens: a comic novelty becomes something quite beautiful as Floyd meets his first “grizzly friend” (Gianna Vacirca).
Bountiful Nature puts on quite a show in Bears. Designer T. Erin Gruber, an expert in video and projection design, gives it a glow-in-the dark playground of cutouts: mountains, clouds, the firmament, the outline of water or sense of trees. And lighting and projections continually transform it. Sometimes it’s the glow of sunlight hitting rock or dappling onto water, sometimes the aurora borealis, the starry sky or the flickering invasion of light onto ice or into the tangle of cedar branches.
Full of industrial buzz, hums, pulses, heartbeats, the soundscape created by Noon Dean Musani (aka dj Phatcat), an electronic music specialist, moves Floyd through time and space too. I appreciated the sound even more in the large theatre, where the bare stage is bigger and barer.
MacKenzie, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, is a funny writer. The script is built on unexpected juxtapositions, similes mostly and mostly from the human world. The silt of the Athabasca River “accepts his weight like an enormous Posturepedic mattress.” Insects stir up the riverbed “like the mother of all protein shakes.” Chickadees, says Floyd, “were something a guy could count on, like caffeine and momentum.”
The Chorus, that corps of lyrical movers, occasionally joins in, with amusingly starchy annotations. As Floyd considers the romantic fortunes of an importuning grouse, they note “nothing kills the mood like a fuckin’ clear-cut.” Floyd’s inner grizzly, gradually getting unleashed in the wild, reflects on the declining population of prairie songbirds, and they add “fuck progress!.”
Bears doesn’t step back from spirited activism. But it comes at things as a rear-guard action, from the perspective of conjuring natural wonder and setting forth theatrically the high price of risking it. Pipelines are risky. We have a lot to lose.
Written and directed by: Matthew MacKenzie
Choreography by: Monica Dottor
Starring: Sheldon Elter, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Gianna Vacirca, Rebecca Sadowski, Zoë Glassman, Skye Demas, Karina Cox, Shammy Belmore, Alida Kendell
Running: through Oct. 31
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com