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The Scrubbing Project

Directed by Muriel Miguel

Written and performed by Jani Lauzon, Monique Mojica and Michelle St. John

At the Factory Studio in Toronto

Rating: *

Just before The Scrubbing Project breaks for a much-needed intermission, a heavenly Valkyrie charged with doing something for an earthbound, half-native woman utters this immortal line: "What was the mission again?" Yes, out there in the befuddled audience, you know you are in serious trouble when the characters reveal they don't understand the plot either. It's got something to do with the experience of being a part-native woman and features appearances from the Marx brothers, Woody Woodpecker, a real aboriginal man from Panama recalling (on video) the massacre of the Kuna people and several Holocaust references. Thank goodness there isn't a quiz at the end because the audience would certainly fail it.

The Scrubbing Project is a musical show created and performed by a trio who refer to themselves as Turtle Gals, and mounted by Native Earth Performing Arts in the Factory Theatre's studio -- that much is certain. Jani Lauzon, Michelle St. John and Monique Mojica play respectively a Valkyrie, some kind of an angel, and Nike, the goddess of victory. These three are sitting up in "starworld" waiting to visit three "half-breeds" on Earth and singing old show tunes like Swingin' on a Star and High Hopes.

They also play the earthly women in question: the wannabe Indian, Branda; the wannabe saint, Ophelia; and Esperanza, a person who carries about a bag of bones. Branda seems to have spent time in jail and seems to have lost a daughter, but neither event is explained. Equally confusingly, the devout little Ophelia is not only marked with the stigmata, she is also half-Jewish (perhaps reflecting Michelle St. John's roots, which she identifies in the program as Wampanoag, Carib and Jewish). Esperanza, meanwhile, is also half Jewish and the descendant of some Latin American people (perhaps she's another Kuna?) who have also suffered a genocide. Guess those bones belong to her ancestors.

Sometimes this gang performs faintly amusing scenes from their living-with-genocide support group; sometimes they predictably recall trying to scrub their skin lighter (hence the show's title), but mainly they wait around for someone called Lydia. Her identity is never explained, and she never shows up, but she is the excuse for the three to play Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady. That kind of weird segue counts as a tight thematic connection in The Scrubbing Project. There is no discernable connection for the Woody Wood- pecker number, which Lauzon performs with a puppet.

Muriel Miguel, a director who has worked with native theatre companies in both New York and Toronto, doesn't bring any greater understanding of the project to the table, fiddling about with various panels in the set and permitting those utterly unnecessary video segments, two of which are inexcusable attempts to achieve emotion by dragging real people into this fictional universe. The performers can't bring any great dramatic power to their own serious scenes, but they are enthusiastic vaudeville entertainers: Lauzon, in particular, has a knack for the funny girl, goofball shtick.

All this would be merely puzzling were it not that the Turtle Gals want to fling some pretty heavy stuff out there on stage along with Groucho and Woody. As they indiscriminately pile up the references to genocide, racism and cultural confusion, The Scrubbing Project looks irresponsible to the point of being offensive. That not one but two characters claim Jewish heritage is the excuse for trotting out the mother of all genocides, which the Turtle Gals do jokingly: Ophelia roots around in her lunch bag to find packages of guilt and truth, but Esperanza trumps her with death camps. Branda, meanwhile, just can't get their attention with her European roots as she quotes feebly from a pamphlet about Finland.

The gals may be capable of satirizing the suffering contest that contemporary identity politics have become, but that doesn't mean they have risen above it, in a show that makes little distinction between an insensitive remark about skin colour and the murder of innocents. If, as contemporary Canadian women of mixed ancestry, they are the heirs to every slaughter from Wounded Knee to Auschwitz to Kosovo, then we are all children of survivors, which conveniently leaves nobody to be the children of murderers. The Scrubbing Factory continues in Toronto to Dec. 8. For information: 416-504-9971.

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