The Aki Studio, a black-box theatre snug in the centre of Regent Park’s new arts and culture complex in Toronto, officially opened on Friday with a play by Métis performer Keith Barker. A few words about the space first, before getting to the show.
Aki is Anishinaabemowin for land or place. The studio theatre comes by this Ojibway name honestly – it is run by Native Earth Performing Arts, a theatre company whose establishment 30 years ago essentially marked the beginning of contemporary aboriginal theatre in Canada.
The moment where you stop shuttling around and get a permanent address is a significant one for any thirtysomething, but the symbolism of Canada’s original first-nations theatre company ending its nomadic lifestyle and getting a plot of land of its own is particularly powerful.
The Aki’s sound stands out on a first visit because The Hours That Remain, a metaphysical mystery of sorts inspired by the real-life horrors of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia, provides a fine showcase for the space’s tight tuning. Conjuring up trucks ominously rumbling down the road, Samuel Shouldice’s surround-sound design effectively produces shudders from the tailbone up.
A co-production of Toronto’s New Harlem and the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, this play is Barker’s artistic attempt to grapple with that notorious 800-kilometre stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert where at least 18 women – and, unofficially, as many as 43 – were murdered or disappeared between 1969 and 2006.
Coincidentally, it comes at a moment when the Highway of Tears is suddenly back in the headlines – the RCMP’s Project E-Pana just announced that it has finally solved one of the murders dating back to 1974, and may be on the road to clearing up two others.
Barker’s play – his first, and it shows – concerns Denise’s (Tara Beagan) attempts to deal with the unsolved disappearance of her sister Michelle (Keira Loughran).
Denise, who like the majority of the women who disappeared along the real-life Highway 16 is first nations, hallucinates that she sees her absent sibling and vanishes herself for weeks at a time herself trying to find her. Her traumatized behaviour puts a strain on the relationship with her supportive but increasingly frustrated husband, Daniel (Eli Ham).
Here, Barker shines a light on how difficult missing-persons cases can be for families, kept constantly guessing, always on the lookout. It’s a tough topic and, in order to make it more dramatically palatable, he adopts a light, aloof and frequently comic style at odds with the subject matter.
Daniel and Denise’s relationship, for instance, follows the dynamics of your typical sitcom couple, with the husband always being careful not to offend his wife so as not to be denied sex. With his banter and politically incorrect jokes about “retards,” Barker seems eager to engage his audience and say, “Hey, this isn’t one of those earnest issue plays!”
This angle is difficult to sustain, however, as Denise begins having dreams where she encounters other women who have disappeared. Loughran plays them all – a lawyer who fights off two men with an iron, a single mother who dispenses advice to her fellow prostitutes, a young aboriginal hitchhiker.
Barker’s treatment of these visions stays in televisual territory. At times, it can seem like a very special crossover episode between The Ghost Whisperer and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Director David Storch’s quirky production never really establishes a convincing convention for the sharp shifts in and out of the vision sequences, while Andy Moro’s projections of glimmering trees and stars gives the proceedings a strangely New Age vibe.
The three performances have a cartoonish quality to them for the most part. Of course, Loughran is playing a series of hallucinations – which, by its very nature is hard to delve into in all dimensions – while Ham is called upon to conceal much of what he’s really thinking and feeling as a red herring leading up to a final, slightly incoherent twist.
Only Beagan’s big-eyed Denise manages to break through the play’s emotional seal. Her final moments are surprisingly moving, even as Barker’s play blasts off into outer space.