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James Dallas Smith and Michaela Washburn in Almighty Voice and his Wife.

Dahlia Katz

  • Almighty Voice and His Wife
  • Written by Daniel David Moses
  • Genre Drama
  • Director Jani Lauzon
  • Actors James Dallas Smith and Michaela Washburn
  • Company and Venue Soulpepper Theatre
  • City Toronto
  • Year Runs to Sunday, Nov. 10

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Ladies and gentlemen! Non-binary and two-spirit! May I present to you the amazing true story of Almighty Voice, Cree outlaw and folk hero, and his ride-or-die wife, the fierce White Girl!

Sorry, I seem to have been infected by the vaudeville hoopla of Daniel David Moses’s Almighty Voice and His Wife. Or, more accurately, the vaudeville hoopla of its second act. Moses’s 1990s play is, notoriously, a two-sided one, its first part being a lyrical love story, the second, a raucous satire.

Both sides get a powerful treatment in Soulpepper’s landmark production – the first time the company has staged a work by an Indigenous Canadian playwright. I’ll admit I didn’t see the play’s previous major Toronto production, at Native Earth 10 years ago, but I suspect this one may be definitive. Directed with finesse by Jani Lauzon and performed with great spirit and charm by Michaela Washburn and James Dallas Smith, it fully discloses the play’s beauty and its audacity.

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Moses’s script is based on the murky real-life events surrounding Kisse-Manitou-Wayou, or Almighty Voice, a legendary Cree warrior in 1890s Saskatchewan who was jailed for unlawfully killing livestock, then escaped and shot a North-West Mounted Police officer who tried to recapture him. After a long and violent manhunt, he and two fellow warriors were finally taken down by cannon fire in a standoff near Batoche.

In Act 1, titled Running with the Moon, Moses reshapes these events as a romance. Almighty Voice (Smith) woos White Girl (Washburn), a young woman who has earned her nickname from a stint in residential school. The buffalo being nearly extinct, Almighty Voice instead slaughters a cow for their wedding feast, leading to his arrest. After his jailbreak, he and White Girl go on the run.

It’s a tender tale of love growing through adversity, by turns funny, sexy and moving, a sort of First Nations Bonnie and Clyde, with poetic passages and an elegant nine-scene structure that echoes the phases of the moon. At the same time, Moses skilfully fills in the historical backdrop – the dire years of near-starvation and government oppression following the collapse of the North-West Rebellion – and, through the tortured memories of White Girl, reveals the damage already being caused by the residential schools.

Clearly, Moses was ahead of the curve, anticipating the horror stories to emerge from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the same way, his jarring Act 2 – Ghost Dance – is a satire of old-time racist entertainment predating the likes of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon.

The dead Almighty Voice, now the Ghost, finds himself in a kind of lime-lit hell – a parody of one of those Wild West vaudeville shows that perpetuated the stereotype of the “red Indian.” There, he’s goaded by a crude, wisecracking emcee, the Interlocutor (played by White Girl in whiteface).

As the Ghost is put through his paces, singing, dancing and mugging, Moses heaps on every Indigenous cliché imaginable, from the relatively benign to the increasingly hateful, all delivered via a stream of bad puns, worse shtick and – in this production – goofy cartoon sound effects.

If it gets to be too much at times, ultimately Moses’s descent into offensive racist excess has an emetic effect, purging the demons of white European colonialism.

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Smith and Washburn have a delightful romantic chemistry in the first act. Washburn is especially impressive, conveying White Girl’s vaunted ferocity in her emotional attacks against the white Christian god and his “bad medicine.” She transmutes that emotion into aggressive comedy as the Interlocutor in Act 2, until it’s finally unleashed again at the play’s climax.

There’s more shape-shifting in Ken MacKenzie’s set and video design, which begins by suggesting the transparent roof of a tepee under a starry sky, then later turns into a vaudeville stage decked with glitzy fake stars. Equally dexterous are Jennifer Lennon’s lighting and Marc Merilainen’s musical score.

Seductive, shocking, cathartic, this is a show worth the hoopla.

Almighty Voice and His Wife continues to Nov. 10. (soulpepper.ca)

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