At this moment where reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians seems as elusive as ever, it's heartening that Drew Hayden Taylor is still out there fighting the good fight, writing kind-hearted plays that try to bridge that gap with humour.
Cottagers and Indians is the latest two-hander by the Ojibwa playwright – inspired by a real dispute between Ontario cottage owners and local Indigenous people trying to revive an old tradition.
Arthur Copper (Herbie Barnes) is an Anishinaabe man who has begun seeding lakes near his reserve north of Toronto with wild rice – what his people call manoomin. With many from his community struggling with health issues like diabetes, he wants to re-introduce this grain into their regular diet – though maybe he also wants to make a profit from selling some on the side, too.
Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt), meanwhile, is a cottage owner from Toronto who is suddenly watching as "her" lake is turned into Arthur's personal farm. The wild rice inhibits her and her husband's ability to fish or boat – and don't get her started on what it all means for the property value. She may eat organic food, but that doesn't mean she wants to swim through it.
In director Patti Shaughnessy charmingly low-key production, Arthur and Maureen speak to the audience directly from opposite sides of the stage – and try to convince us that their point of view is the right one.
Arthur spends much of the play sitting in a canoe, while Maureen reclines in a muskoka chair with a glass of Chardonnay. There's an element of comic caricature to their characters at first, but Taylor plays with our expectations and gradually fleshes both out into individuals who care deeply about their families.
Mostly, Arthur and Maureen speak in monologue, but occasionally they comment on each other's narrative; only rarely do they speak directly to one another, the form underscoring its themes. Rather than the two trying to truly understand one another, the action builds up to what Arthur calls an "Oka on water."
Taylor's play is filled with one-liners that showcase his down-to-earth sense of humour. If you like the jokes in Come From Away, then look into Cottagers and Indians as well (and follow him on Twitter). I laughed out loud at the comparisons his play draws between condo boards and band councils, and over Arthur's struggles to find politically correct language for white people.
Barnes handles the humour perfectly as he alternates between charming and confronting individual spectators in the audience – and his performance turns poignant at the end, too. Hoyt is strong as well, but a little more closed-off in her performance; perhaps that will change when she grows more comfortable with her lines, which she stumbled over a few times on opening night.
Shaughnessy's production is one where all the design elements are perfectly in tune with the tone of the show. Robin Fisher's set pays homage too – and gently satirizes – the Group of Seven's paintings that romanticized a supposedly unpeopled wilderness for Canadian. (There's also good sight gag Fisher and costume designer Sage Paul orchestrate near the end that brings a famous Alex Colville scene to life.)
Likewise Beau Dixon's sound design makes a few points of its own – giving us sounds of the cars driving by and lawnmowers as Maureen complains about how Arthur is ruining the lake that she and her neighbours so carefully conserve.
A mainstay of Canadian theatre for a quarter of a century, Taylor's style is in contrast to the times – there's a lot of understandable anger out there in the wake of the acquittals of Gerald Stanley in Saskatchewan and Raymond Cormier in Manitoba. As a "settler," as Arthur would call me, I'm not sure we deserve the generosity he demonstrates here in this little play with a big heart and no heroes or villains; it feels like a gift.
Cottagers and Indians (tarragontheatre.com) continues to March 25.
The Canadian Press