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theatre review

Robert Winslow and Herbie Barnes in "The Berlin Blues"

What do you do if you inherit a farm and you're not a farmer? Turn it into a theatre, which is what actor and director Robert Winslow did 20 years ago.

4th Line Theatre, situated just beyond the little town of Millbrook near Peterborough, Ont., puts on Canadian plays, usually with local interest. The Berlin Blues, by Drew Hayden Taylor - an aboriginal playwright from Ontario - certainly fits both mandates.

Taylor has created a farce, but like all good farces, there is a serious underbelly. German developers with deep pockets have come to the fictional reserve of Otter Lake with an irresistible offer - to build a theme park called Ojibway World, which will mean money spent and jobs created.

The first act focuses on the Germans, Birgit and Reinhart (Cynthia Ashperger and Robert Winslow), who, like many of their countrymen,are besotted by first nations culture (they certainly know more about Ojibway ritual and folklore than the Otter Lake residents themselves). The second act chronicles the week before Ojibway World opens.

4th Line has assembled an excellent cast of first nations actors to play the denizens of Otter Lake: Cheri Maracle (Donalda) as the economic development officer; Clifford Cardinal (Andrew) who is, in his words, the "rez cop"; Patti Shaughnessy (Angie) his girlfriend who works in the local craft store; and Herbie Barnes (Trailer), a shiftless layabout who lusts after Donalda.

While Donalda, Andrew and Trailer all get high-paying jobs with Ojibway World, the politically correct Angie is the lone holdout. She objects violently to what she sees as cultural appropriation. Thus the stage is set for conflict, and while there are laughs galore, Taylor raises some very provocative questions about economic imperialism.

The comedy in the first act seems a little forced at times, but Taylor comes into his own in the hilarious second act. Aboriginal humour is often self-deprecation at its best: Trailer's cooking Kraft Dinner in root beer because his water pump is broken is referred to as "indigenous fusion cuisine." Donalda's answer to the question, "What do you know about buffalos?" "They have great wings." Favourite memories of reserve life: "Filing land claims, gutting caribou and playing bingo"

Taylor is also a master of snappy one-liners, and knows how to build on the farcical elements here, particularly Trailer's epic production of Dancing with Wolves: The Musical. (We get to hear a couple of the songs, which generate a lot of laughter.) Timing is everything in farce, so much rides on director Kim Blackwell, who ensures the speed of attack, especially in the raucous second act.

Farce also means that the audience must surrender to a level of absurdity, and Taylor piles on enough craziness to draw us in. Who wouldn't be charmed, for example, by what Ojibway World has to offer? The goodies include The International Longhouse of Pancakes, Chief Dan George Gorge, Sitting Bull Steakhouse and Rotisserie and Le Cirque du Billy Jack. Or, my favourite, the on-site hotel called Haida Way.

Meanwhile, Julia Tribe's riotous Ojibway World costumes manage to embrace every native culture from both North and South America. And, lest we forget this cliché, there is a marauding buffalo (a puppet manned by three people) that is one of the single most hilarious things I've ever seen on the stage.

Helping the playwright are solid performances from the actors. The impish Barnes, in particular, gives an over-the-top performance of a lifetime.

The Berlin Blues continues in Millbrook, Ont., until Saturday.

The Berlin Blues

  • Written by Drew Hayden Taylor
  • Directed by Kim Blackwell
  • Starring Cynthia Ashperger, Herbie Barnes, Clifford Cardinal, Cheri Maracle, Patti Shaughnessy and Robert Winslow
  • At 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, Ont.