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theatre review

Jenn Griffin and Margo Kane in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s premiere of The Unplugging.david cooper

On Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, the school curriculum might include deer hunting or berry picking – exposing students to traditional aboriginal culture. These "lessons on the land" were detailed in an article in last weekend's Globe and Mail, sparking an online debate about the value of going back to the ways of the past to prepare young First Nations students for the future.

Yvette Nolan's The Unplugging, which had its world premiere at the Arts Club Revue Stage in Vancouver on Wednesday, could do much to illuminate that discussion. It offers an aboriginal – and feminist – perspective on how the lessons of the past can help us survive an uncertain future.

In The Unplugging, the (very near) future is a post-apocalyptic nightmare: One day the power went out and that was that. Unable to cultivate their own food, people scrounge around for what's left – which isn't much. Even in aboriginal communities, people have become so removed from their native culture that they are no longer able to live off the land, to fend for themselves using the ways of their ancestors. And there's no more Google to provide the answers.

For Elena (Margo Kane) and Bernadette (Jenn Griffin), this has meant exile. Their native community, unable to handle the abrupt change and the consequences for survival, has expelled the women, who are deemed a drain: no longer necessary, because of their post-reproductive age.

When the play opens, we see them moving slowly through the snow in the north, in search of shelter. Elena despairs, while Bernadette, or Bern, tries to motivate. "It's not over," she says. "We're not over."

They find a place to live, some food to eat, and develop systems to sustain themselves. Their friendship, though still strained at times, also develops and strengthens.

But for as long as there have been girlfriends, there have been men who come between them. And this is a threat that survives even the apocalypse.

After some time, Elena and Bern's now somewhat comfortable, fruitful routine is rocked by the sudden appearance of the young, handsome Seamus (Anton Lipovetsky). He tells them he has left the community in disgust over its leadership. Not surprisingly, Seamus and Bern – who earlier told Elena how much she misses sex – hook up. But there are surprises to come (which I won't reveal here).

This play, which is based on an Athabascan legend, raises some important and timely questions – cultural, social and environmental. If only the production lived up to the premise. Rather than a dynamic story (and, okay, message) that erupts through a genuine interplay of complex characters, the whole effort comes off as frankly a bit earnest and preachy. Rather than insight, we get clichés.

There were moments of tension and some lovely humour between the two women, but these were overwhelmed by interactions that felt awkward.

At 90 minutes (with no intermission), this play should move along. But the pacing was off, in part because of a bunch of unnecessary stage business in between scenes.

The sound design – a plaintive wail to begin, with the wind underneath picking up steam – was another cliché and overpowering to boot, rather than a subtle enhancement. The silhouetted love scene behind a screen felt very 30 years ago.

Even if timely, this production felt stale.

Still, back to those native-culture field trips on Haida Gwaii, I can think of a few people who commented on the article who could use a trip to the theatre to see this. It would also be a worthwhile field trip for those Haida students (for any students, in fact) because there is something important to learn here. I just wish the wisdom had been wrapped in a more dynamic package, rather than coming off as something that might have felt more at home in a school gym.