What? A land claim comedy? The surprising geniality of Cottagers and Indians at Shadow Theatre. A review

Davina Stewart and Trevor Duplessis in Cottagers and Indians, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s no accident that the first sound you hear in Cottagers and Indians is laughter (with some accompaniment from amused birds).   

The Drew Hayden Taylor play with the cheeky title that’s running in the Shadow Theatre season is something rare. When push comes to shove (as pushes so often do, times being what they are), you could call it a land claim comedy: a category of Canadian theatre in which Cottagers and Indians, named for the kids’ good guy/bad guy game, might well be the sole occupant. 

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It is surprisingly genial in tone, given the implications. And its insights into the collision of cultures at a lake in Ontario cottage country come generously wrapped in a raucous sense of humour. The stakes in John Hudson’s production are referenced visually: the evocation of Nature of Daniel vanHeyst’s beautiful design, its wood, its banks of wild rice reeds, its lighting.

The story is inspired by a real-life conflict that happened near the Curve Lake First Nation (home of Ojibwa playwright Taylor). An enterprising Indigenous man set about reviving an Indigenous tradition by seeding lakes with manoomin (wild rice), with a view to improving his community’s diet, and sustaining himself economically. And the upscale, needless to say white, cottager owners, who claimed the lake for recreation, objected. 

As set forth by Taylor, the combatants at fictional Otter Lake do battle under the flag of tradition, both claim their Nature bona fides, and both accuse each other of entitlement. There is weight on both sides. But of course we do know who the good guy is. And it’s not complacent, well-heeled Maureen Poole (Davina Stewart), waving her glass of “chilled Chardonnay, superbly oaked” for emphasis from her deck. Airing the grievances she groups under “the Cottager’s Burden,” she’s got one eye on the “infestation of weeds” cluttering her hitherto pristine shoreline and the other on her property values. 

Trevor Duplessis in Cottagers and Indians, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Arthur Copper (Trevor Duplessis), the Anishinaabe man from two lakes over who’s been planting and harvesting manoomin — with a loud machine he calls Gertie — is what Maureen calls “an Aboriginal horticulturalist gone mad.” Arthur is smart, quick-witted, mischievously charming, and armed with most of the playwright’s funniest barbs. You hear them pinging off the well-fortified but tinny self-delusions of white privilege . 

Maureen waves the “tradition” flag from the deck of “a cottage a family built.” When Arthur talks about tradition, recent history on his family’s traditional trapping ground is “just before Time Immemorial became the 20th century,” as he puts it in his witty fashion. 

Davina Stewart in Cottagers and Indians, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Maureen might have an ear — both ears — on the racket of Gertie scooping up the plants that have in her view turned lakes into marshes, and screwed up boating and swimming. But she’s tone deaf to her own condescension. When she says “we are all this lake,” you’re hearing a whole historical soundtrack, not to mention an echo of the old NIMBY chorus. Arthur, quick on the uptake, renames it NIMBL, not in my back lake. And he makes sharp satirical use of the land acknowledgment (with which theatres invariably begin performances) with his own re-worked version.

Racist? Of course not, Maureen objects. “In principle, we support Native issues.” She’s seen Dances With Wolves; she has not one but three dreamcatchers. When she objects to the constant revisions of political correctness that have made “Indian” obsolete, in favour of Native, or Indigenous, or “whatever you people are calling yourselves these days,” Arthur cheerfully counters with his own. “settler, people of pallor …. Some of my best friends are white,” he says. “Or white-ish.” 

The play is an intricate weave of monologues (occasionally overheard by the two characters separately onstage, in canoe and on deck) and direct addresses to the audiences. Duplessis negotiates the ironies in a bold and appealing comic performance. Maureen, armed variously by sarcasm, exasperation or rage, is by no means a dimbulb in either the play or Stewart’s performance.

Her condescension is coloured (so to speak) by occasional moments of knowingness when the character seems to understand that at some level she’s becoming a telling white caricature and making herself look bad. Referencing Dancing With Wolves is, after all, quite a glaring misstep for a white upper middle-class small-l liberal, Taylor’s point being how fast small-l white liberals lose their small-l liberality when property is at stake.  Stewart’s performance captures a teeny crack in her complacency.

Still, even though the play in the end offers another layer of understanding, a touching undercurrent of tragic life experience, to each of the characters in their lakeside confrontation, they don’t cede their ground. Or rather, the water. 

Resolution isn’t within the compass or aim of Cottagers and Indians. Understanding is a start, enhanced and sharpened by humour. Further negotiation is invited. 


Cottagers and Indians

Theatre: Shadow Theatre

Written by: Drew Hayden Taylor

Starring: Trevor Duplessis, Davina Stewart

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave. 

Running: Thursday through March 27

Tickets: shadowtheatre.org

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