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Almighty Voice and His Wife

  • Written by Daniel David Moses
  • Directed by Michael Greyeyes
  • Starring Derek Garza and Cara Gee
  • A Native Earth Performing Arts production
  • At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto on Tuesday
  • **½

In the fall of 1895, a decade after Louis Riel was hanged for treason for leading the North West Rebellion, Almighty Voice was arrested in Saskatchewan for a more prosaic reason: He shot a cow that, for some reason lost to history, the authorities didn't think he had the legal right to shoot.

This banal incident might be long forgotten if it weren't for a case of really bad comic timing. After a police guard joked to Almighty Voice that he was going to be hanged - har, har - the Cree man broke out of prison in Duck Lake and went on the lam for the next year and a half. The North West Mounted Police chased after him and did eventually get their man - but it took a cannon to bring him down in the end and three Mounties and a postmaster died in the pursuit.

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While The Globe reported at the time that Almighty Voice was simply "a bad Cree Indian," his story has blossomed into a heroic legend that has inspired countless Canadian artists since. The 1970s were a particular boom time for Almighty Voice stories, as he appeared in a 1970 play by Len Peterson, a 1974 film starring Donald Sutherland, and in Pierre Berton's 1978 tome The Wild Frontier.

In 1991, aboriginal playwright Daniel David Moses got his hands on the hero/outlaw, writing Almighty Voice and His Wife, which Native Earth Performing Arts is currently reviving in a new production directed by Michael Greyeyes. (After its run in Toronto, it will tour to a festival in London.) The play is divided into two: Half tells Almighty Voice's story in a straightforward, lyrical manner, and half takes the story's cultural baggage apart through a postmodern vaudeville act.

But first acts first: In Moses's sympathetic version of the legend - told in nine scenes, each meant to represent one phase of the lunar cycle - Almighty Voice (Derek Garza) has a young wife (Cara Gee) and the cow is killed for their wedding feast.

This titular wife is named White Girl, presumably because of the attitudes she learned when she was taken off to residential school. She has internalized what she calls the "bad medicine" of the school and its cruel Christian God, which haunts her as an all-seeing glass eye.

In the second act - which takes place after Almighty Voice's death - White Girl dons white makeup and is transformed into the Interlocutor, the English-accented master-of-ceremonies of an afterlife entertainment called The Red and White Victoria Regina Spirit Revival Show. There, she has the ghost of Almighty Voice - also in "white face" - retell his life and death in an intentionally racist parody of Wild West and minstrel shows.

"What's the meaning of this?" she shouts when he tries to perform his death song in Cree. "Come on, use the Queen's tongue, or I'll sell you to a cigar store."

With its postcolonial and identity politics and love of deconstruction, Almighty Voice and his Wife has a strong whiff of the university classroom, which is where it has largely been kept alive over the past 17 years. But Moses's play looks good on its feet. His poetry goes to the gut, his wordplay is clever, and there are real emotional arcs under the second half's Brechtian trappings.

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Garza is a strong, warm presence as Almighty Voice. Gee has the harder role, however, having to wear layers of characters.

Though oddly stilted in the first half, Gee blossoms emotionally in the second, letting White Girl's pain seep through the hyper-stylized exterior of the Interlocutor.

And yet, you constantly want Gee - and Greyeyes's manic production - to take a deep breath, relax and slow down. The rhythms of the double-act are way off, and, overall, the jokes are delivered about as well as the police guard's joke in 1895; we may be supposed to groan or cringe more than laugh, but the timing should still be there.

Almighty Voice and His Wife runs until April 12

( http://www.nativeearth.ca).

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