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3 out of 4 stars

There's a startling moment in the opening scene of Factory Theatre's The Rez Sisters when black actor Djennie Laguerre suddenly appears onstage in the role of Annie Cook, the country music-crazy resident of a Manitoulin Island Indian reserve. This is colour-blind casting writ large. However much you've prepared yourself for Ken Gass's "experimental" production of Tomson Highway's landmark play, it still knocks you for a loop.

Gass has taken to heart Cree playwright Highway's frequent insistence that his aboriginal works don't need to be performed by aboriginal actors. The director's diverse cast mixes native and Métis performers with those of Haitian, Korean and South Asian origin. But as they congregate on Gillian Gallow's surreal set, you quickly forget about race and become caught up in their characters.

Highway's rowdy, earthy tale of seven women in a fictional Cree-Ojibwa reserve, who pin their hopes and dreams on a fabulous bingo jackpot, hasn't lost its power in the quarter-century since it premiered in this city. If it now belongs to another time – as those references to cookbook author Madame Benoît and the presence of an old-school Sony Walkman remind us – it remains timeless in its affectionate group portrait of a generation of disadvantaged First Nations women.

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These ladies may not be happy with their lot, but they sure aren't living lives of quiet desperation. On the contrary, they're loud, gossipy, bitchy, exuberant and foul-mouthed. Sisters, half-sisters, sisters-in-law, they squabble like one big, unruly family. That is, until the shared goal of getting to Toronto to partake in "The Biggest Bingo in the World" has them pulling together to raise the necessary travel money.

The second-act scene in which we see them engaged in a flurry of bottle drives, babysitting, bake sales and other fundraising activities is one of the highlights of Gass's lively if uneven staging. In keeping with the non-traditional casting, he emphasizes the stylization and musical structure of Highway's writing instead of its gritty realism, so that these ensemble scenes are like noisy orchestral pieces, while the soliloquies resemble introspective solos.

Composer Wayne Kelso strengthens that impression, underscoring virtually every line of dialogue (sometimes annoyingly) and punctuating the sisters' raucous behaviour with bursts of frenetic, jazzy percussion. Then there's the actual country song that Highway, a composer himself, inserts into Act 2, sung here with gusto by Michaela Washburn as the bisexual biker Emily Dictionary.

The acting is largely enjoyable. Pamela Sinha is movingly stoic as Marie-Adele Starblanket, the cancer-stricken mother with a brood of 14. And Kyra Harper is delightfully rhapsodic as the bowel-obsessed Philomena Moosetail, describing in breathless detail her dream toilet. Then there's sour-faced Jean Yoon, perfectly prissy as the despised Veronique St. Pierre, whose own dream is to own a stove so marvellous that Mme. Benoît "will suicide herself."

Laguerre is effervescent as the Patsy Cline-loving Annie and Jani Lauzon is a ruggedly pragmatic Pelajia Patchnose, whose bête noire is the dirt road outside her house. (The fact that Highway's women long for toilets, stoves and asphalt tells us more about their reserve that any word-pictures could do.)

As Veronique's adopted daughter, the mentally disabled Zhaboonigan, a gawky, unblinking Cara Gee, is completely believable. But her monologue about being raped by white boys, harrowing in itself, would be even more effective if she adopted a tone of bewildered innocence rather than outrage. Washburn, similarly, has misjudged the part of Emily, playing her like a butch lesbian when she's meant to be attracted to both sexes.

Highway gives the play a mystical dimension through the hovering presence of Nanabush, the trickster of Ojibwa mythology, who manifests himself as a bird – and later, as a bingo master of ceremonies. A role originated by the playwright's late brother, dancer René Highway, it's played here expertly by their nephew Billy Merasty. Silently magnetic in his avian incarnations, he becomes brazenly campy as the booming-voiced MC.

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I'm not sure what to make of Gallow's set, in which the roof of Pelajia's house and Marie-Adele's white picket fence jut out of a sea of gravel, like the half-buried Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. At least it's functional and, like André du Toit's use of spotlights, in keeping with Gass's non-realistic approach. Robin Fisher's character-defining costumes – a ludicrous miniskirt for the aging-but-vain Philomena, a cowgirl outfit for Annie – are a delight.

Now that Gass has proved the viability of a non-traditional Rez Sisters, the next question is obvious: When will we see a Factory revival of its all-male counterpart, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing?

The Rez Sisters

  • Written by Thomson Highway
  • Directed by Ken Gass
  • Starring Cara Gee, Kyra Harper, Djennie Laguerre, Jani Lauzon, Billy Merasty, Pamela Sinha, Michaela Washburn, Jean Yoon
  • At Factory Theatre in Toronto

The Rez Sisters runs until Dec. 11.

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