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To jump straight to the verdict: Kanata: Épisode I, Quebec director Robert Lepage’s controversial, cancelled-then-uncancelled new show with Paris’s Théâtre du Soleil, is everything Indigenous artists worried it would be without their participation.

Originally billed as “the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and Indigenous people,” Lepage’s production actually focuses on Vancouver in the 2000s with a serial killer stalking the Downtown Eastside – and the play’s female Indigenous characters, played by performers of other backgrounds in weird-looking wigs, are all victims, either killed or the mothers of children who are killed.

The abominable predations of Robert Pickton are depicted with all the sensitivity of a murder-of-the-week television show.

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An event organized by Black Lives Matter protesting the show's slave songs, on June 26, 2018.

Olivier Jean/La Presse

And the even larger tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada ultimately becomes merely the background for a white, French painter’s personal and emotional journey – as she grapples with restrictions on her artistic expression.

A defensive, cold show, Kanata – which has had its official premiere pushed back to Wednesday, but which I saw in a final public rehearsal on Sunday – will nevertheless probably be celebrated in France; indeed, the theatre critic of Le Figaro has already deemed it “magistral and sombre.”

Then perhaps the most interesting critical question is this: What accounts for the divide in how the show will be seen and heard by different eyes and ears?

Let me first share an impression of Paris from a (white anglophone) Canadian arriving in the City of Lights for the first time in a decade: The collection of postcolonial concerns known in shorthand as “cultural appropriation,” at least regarding the Indigenous peoples of North America, are not taken seriously here.

Minutes from my hotel near Canal Saint-Martin, I discovered, in the Christmas display of one chic boutique, an animatronic Inuit child, ice fishing amid robotic penguins.

Two streets away, an image of an actor in a feather headdress dominated a poster advertising a coming sketch-comedy show. Following the advertised link on my phone, I found a video in which the French comedian in question chants while banging on a drum, until he wanders into a gym; there, his warbonnet wilts over his face, he is mistaken for a giant badminton birdie and is batted back and forth across a net.

This is not to depict French culture as backward, but to help explain, perhaps, that the opposition of certain Indigenous artists and their allies to Lepage’s new show may puzzle over here. Or even be viewed, as a free performing-arts newspaper handed out at the entrances of theatres here put it, as “fake news” and “violent and fascistically inept attacks” fuelled by social media.

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A defensive, cold show, Kanata will nevertheless probably be celebrated in France.

Michele Laurent/theatre automne

From un certain regard, Kanata will appear as a sensitive attempt to grapple with the legacy of residential schools in Canada and their connection to missing and murdered Indigenous women – compared to a clown in a headdress.

To rewind for a moment, the show has been at the centre of a controversy since July, when an open letter was published in Montreal’s Le Devoir by Indigenous artists decrying their total absence from the production.

A subsequent meeting between Lepage, Théâtre du Soleil founding artistic director Ariane Mnouchkine and the letter’s authors led nowhere, and after New York’s Park Avenue Armory pulled its support as a co-producer, Kanata was called off.

But Lepage forwent his fee, and the show runs until Feb. 17 as part of the Festival d’automne à Paris.

I arrived at the final rehearsal (essentially a final preview) with an open mind – and, indeed, endeared by the fact 79-year-old Mnouchkine still personally tears the tickets at the door of Théâtre du Soleil, a famed 54-year-old alternative theatre company based in an old munitions factory in the Bois de Vincennes, on the eastern edge of the city.

There are a couple of aspects of how Kanata came together that have been underreported in the English-language media – and seemed, to me, like potentially valid reasons for the absence of Indigenous artists.

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First, Lepage is the first outside director in 34 years to be invited to mount a show with the Théâtre du Soleil ensemble.

Canadian playwright, actor, film director and stage director Robert Lepage speaks to reporters at the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa, on Nov. 10, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Second, this ensemble is one of the most diverse and international in continental Europe, counting refugees and exiles among its actors. Indeed, Théâtre du Soleil (along with Theatre des Bouffes du Nord) has long been “the exception that proves the rule” that French theatre is overwhelmingly white, as Le Monde put it in a weekend feature on the relatively new vogue for colour-blind casting. (An interview with Quebec Innu writer and actor Natasha Kanapé Fontaine occupied another page of the Idées section, for which you can thank Kanata.)

The show was developed with Théâtre du Soleil’s actors over a number of years of research and rehearsal before public complaints emerged. (The Banff Centre and Simon Fraser University supported it through residencies.) It would have been difficult to cast anyone new in July – and would have likely meant kicking actors out of parts they created.

Ultimately, my hopes for Kanata were that it would be an acknowledged outsider portrait of Canada – where Indigenous peoples and those descended from French and English settlers or subsequent waves of immigration could all be seen from a unusual angle.

Instead, Kanata strikes a realistic tone and struggles in figuring out its point of view, with several plot lines sharing the spotlight at first.

In Ottawa, Leyla (Shaghayegh Beheshti), an Indigenous woman raised by Iranian-Canadians who works at the National Gallery of Canada, begins to date a private collector interested in 19th-century paintings of Indigenous figures such as those by Cornelius Krieghoff and Henry Daniel Thielcke.

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Meanwhile, in Vancouver, Tanya (Frédérique Voruz), Leyla’s lost and heroin-addicted daughter, wanders the Downtown Eastside doing sex work to pay her dealer (the “urban Indian” trope that has kicked around Canadian theatre since George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, which, even in 1967, had some Indigenous actors in its cast).

Also in Vancouver, French couple Miranda (Dominique Jambert), a painter, and Ferdinand (Sébastien Brottet-Michel), an actor, rent a loft as he tries to break into “Hollywood North.” (They share names, not accidentally, with the naive young lovers from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Canada is very much the “brave new world” to them.)

Kanata strikes a realistic tone and struggles in figuring out its point of view, with several plot lines sharing the spotlight at first.

Michele Laurent/theatre automne

Then there is Robert Pickton (Maurice Durozier) – yes, not a character “based on” him, but the serial killer himself.

To a French audience who may have never heard of Pickton, perhaps this might not perturb. But to a Canadian in Paris, it feels as if a national tragedy has been turned into televisual cliché. We get a racist cop and a good cop (both speaking in English); a couple of horror-film visits to Pickton’s farm, where actors provide the sounds of pigs in pens; and ultimately Tanya is lured there to her death, her blood luridly splashed across the window of a trailer.

To an English-speaking audience, the clunky writing alone of these scenes is enough to turn you off the treatment. (Playwright Michel Nadeau is credited with shaping the text.)

Other aspects of the 2½-hour show are less off-putting – and grapple with themes of assimilation in truly intriguing ways.

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Tobie (Martial Jacques), a two-spirited documentary filmmaker, interviews residential school survivor Louise (Nirupama Nityanandan) about the theft of her language – and her daughter. Then we see him in a recording studio as her interview is dubbed into French.

Meanwhile, Ferdinard tries and fails to lose his French accent and can only land parts as waiters, another amusing irony. An acting coach tells him that the only way to really lose his French accent is to stop being French – but it is too painful for him to part with his identity.

Lepage and company are drawing a connection for their foreign audience – from the loss of language and culture to going missing and being murdered.

It’s only in its last third that Kanata takes a really wrong turn, however, as Leyla and Louise and their pain evaporate and the focus zeroes in on Miranda. In the wake of the death of her friend, Tanya, she becomes inspired to paint her and other victims of Pickton.

When she plans an exhibition, however, she is surprised to be met with opposition by Indigenous groups – and admonished for not seeking permission to depict the women. She protests: She’s an artist, that’s how she responds to the world, and she cares about these women and sees them as simply women, not Indigenous women.

That should be enough to make the point, but, in Kanata’s most absurd moment, a despairing Miranda hits the Downtown Eastside to purchase heroin so she can gain the authenticity needed to paint her portraits. “Must a Jew play a Jew?” she asks, melodramatically, pointing to a pharmacist in a kippah and sounding more like Portia than Miranda.

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This ensemble is one of the most diverse and international in continental Europe, counting refugees and exiles among its actors.

Michele Laurent/theatre automne

Granted, this sequence does lead to Kanata’s one true coup de théàtre: a seemingly physically impossible drug trip aboard a floating canoe that turns upside down above the stage.

But why does the show end with us feeling primarily the French white woman’s pain – and granting her the most substantial emotional journey?

Last summer, another Lepage show called Slav shuttered early at the Montreal jazz festival. It had come under protest for being based around the songs of enslaved black men and women but having a mostly white cast (and seemingly trying to universalize the African-American experience of slavery).

“Stepping into the shoes of another person to try to understand them, and in the process, perhaps understand ourselves, better,” Lepage wrote in defence of his show. “This ancient ritual requires that we borrow, for the duration of a performance, someone else’s look, voice, accent and at times even gender.”

This defence – to which I am not unsympathetic in general – pervades Kanata to an extent that it distorts its original purpose. For instance, what really seems to fascinate Lepage about Pickton is that he confessed to an undercover agent posing as a cellmate. The director’s main takeaway from all the horror: See, if not for acting, stepping into another character’s shoes, Pickton might not have been caught.

In Kanata, however, those shoes only shift in one direction: The two white French characters are played by white French actors, while a black character who works at a safe-injection site is played by a black actor. It is the Indigenous characters alone who are not in their own bodies – played by actors of colour or white actors in long black wigs.

To put it another way, Kanata: Episode I – who knows if other episodes will materialize now? – is a production that is only uninterested in authenticity with regards to its Indigenous characters. That inconsistency and a lack of either imagination or inclusion in casting means Lepage has disappeared Indigenous bodies from a show about the tragic disappearance of Indigenous bodies.

By the end of the show, I could no longer see a generous interpretation of this artistic choice. How did Kanata’s creators have the time and willingness to modify the content of their show to indirectly address the controversy that surrounds it (after Mnouchkine originally said modifying it would be “artistic censorship,” no less) – but not the time or willingness to modify the form itself to be less hypocritical?

I, myself, have trouble with any overarching rules around “cultural appropriation,” but theatre is an inherently collaborative enterprise, and there were scores of artists involved in creating Kanata, including many Canadians. A play is not a painting with a single person holding the brush.

Ultimately, Kanata is a less-than-satisfying, emotionally distant piece of theatre not due to its controversial casting but to the seeming inability of Lepage to stretch himself in a new direction, working with Théâtre du Soleil the way he did, ironically enough, in the Tempest he staged with the Huron-Wendat Nation outside Quebec City in 2011. Here, Lepage did not figure out the right story to tell with this ensemble – or the right way to tell this story with this ensemble.

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