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From left: Joelle Peters as Eugenia, Kathleen MacLean as Marie-Angelique and Jenna-Lee Hyde as Cecilia in Women of the Fur Trade at the Stratford Festival.David Hou/Stratford Festival

  • Title: Women of the Fur Trade
  • Written by: Frances Koncan
  • Director: Yvette Nolan
  • Actors: Jenna-Lee Hyde, Kathleen MacLean and Joelle Peters
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: To July 30, 2023

The Canadian history blogger and podcaster Craig Baird has been amusing his followers lately with AI-generated imagery, including every Canadian prime minister in the guise of a heavy metal star. Last week, he tried feeding in key moments of Canadian history and, apart from Laura Secord, came back with many pictures of a bunch of white guys – Vikings arriving in Newfoundland, miners in the Klondike, soldiers at the battle of Queenston Heights. Clearly, AI needs to meet Women of the Fur Trade.

A historical spoof set amidst the Riel rebellions, it won a new play prize at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival, premiered at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2020 and is now getting a second production at the Stratford Festival. It begins with this premise: If women are left out of history, surely it is because they are shallow and silly creatures only concerned with ensnaring men.

The action involves the Ojibwe woman Eugenia (Joelle Peters), the Métis woman Marie-Angelique (Kathleen MacLean) and the white settler Cecilia (Jenna-Lee Hyde), all three stuck together at Fort Garry on the Reddish River in a room with no exit. For some mysterious reason Eugenia can come and go as she pleases but Marie-Angelique and Cecilia can only drink tea, play who-said-that-famous-quote and write letters. Marie-Angelique pens breathless fan letters to Louis Riel while Cecilia writes to her absent husband but confesses to a crush on Thomas Scott, the Irishman defending the cause of the Canadian Party against Riel.

Joyously anachronistic in her language and references (which include Andy Warhol and Star Wars), playwright Frances Koncan portrays the women as giddy girls, swooning over Ken doll versions of Riel and Scott, and pinky-swearing eternal friendship. Their political consciousness seems directly tied to their level of privilege. Eugenia has some, denouncing settlers for taking her people’s land, stealing the best bannock recipes and wearing headdresses at Halloween. Marie-Angelique wants to fight for her people, but mainly because she fancies herself as Riel’s future girlfriend. Cecilia is completely oblivious and thinks everyone should just get along.

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Keith Barker as Louis Riel (left) and Nathan Howe as Thomas Scott in Women of the Fur Trade.David Hou/Stratford Festival

Just when this premise might exhaust itself, Koncan introduces the men: Riel (Keith Barker) is a vain alpha dog as pleased with his poetry as he is with his mustache, and Scott (Nathan Howe) is his frenemy and tag-along. To the extent there is much plot here, it’s a reverse Cyrano de Bergerac story: Scott is the one actually writing the amorous responses to Marie-Angelique’s fan mail and signing them “Throbbingly yours, Louis Riel.”

The juxtaposition of the historical figures and the contemporary colloquialisms is repeatedly amusing as is the ironic metaphor of the women’s vacuity as an explanation for their historical insignificance. Under the direction of Yvette Nolan, all the performances are strong but MacLean’s self-absorbed Marie-Angelique and Barker’s Riel, who reaches almost Trump-like levels of delusion in his final scenes, are particularly delightful.

Eventually, Marie-Angelique recognizes she must fight for her people for her own sake, not Riel’s, and takes an independent stance, but otherwise there is little development of the themes. Meanwhile, historical events, including various dramatic deaths, are enacted without much explanation: If you didn’t know a bit about the Riel rebellions previously, the plot, such as it is, would be largely incomprehensible. So, after all the fun – almost two hours without an intermission – Women of the Fur Trade doesn’t leave you with much to chew on. It’s entertaining but does feel like an overblown Fringe show, a farcical bonbon rather than a satirical meal.

Baird, meanwhile, has acknowledged the bunch-of-guys problem and updated his AI offerings with a more diverse series featuring Canadian historical figures taking selfies, including Mary Ann Shadd, the first Black female publisher in North America; Thanadelthur, the 18th century Chipewyan guide and peace negotiator, and the settler author Susanna Moodie.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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