Native spirit takes flight

Painted in the verdant greens of B.C.’s West Coast, with screens suggesting mist and fog, Red Deer College’s The Tempest is truly a “brave new world.”

Painted in the verdant greens of B.C.’s West Coast, with screens suggesting mist and fog, Red Deer College’s The Tempest is truly a “brave new world.”

The thought-provoking play that opened Thursday night at the RDC Arts Centre is “new” because director Thomas Usher has relocated Shakespeare’s romance to a new world setting — the Haida Gwaii archipelago (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), off northern British Columbia.

It’s “brave” because Usher, without a Haida person in his cast or crew, has included elements of that First Nations culture in it.

For accuracy and to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation, Usher invited Reg Davidson, a First Nations visual artist and performer, to instruct theatre students in all things Haida. Red Deer’s Lynn Jonason was also a cultural liaison.

The RDC students must have learned their lessons well, judging by some of the visually spectacular scenes in this production. Usher’s lush vision for the show was brought to life with costume/set designs by Carrie Hamilton and lighting by Patrick Beagan.

Native spirits wearing authentic-looking Haida masks and grass skirts appear whenever sorcerer Prospero (a braid-bearded Layne Zazalak) wants to entertain friends or dispatch foes on the island upon which he’s been stranded.

As well, supernatural Ariel, who at Prospero’s bidding, causes a storm to shipwreck his enemies, has been transformed into a brilliantly attired Raven. In Haida culture, the black bird symbolizes mystery and represents the keeper of knowledge and secrets. The Raven is captivatingly played by Ashley Mercia, who understands bird body language.

Another character that assumes a Haida identity is “villainous” slave Caliban (played with Gollum-like wretchedness by Trysten Luck). But this is where Usher’s use of the First Nations theme becomes tricky and troubling.

For which cultural viewpoint are we to believe?

If Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan and colonial power on the island, is as noble as Shakespeare has written him, then how can we overlook his treatment of Caliban as a “monstrous” slave?

On the other hand, if we trust Caliban’s assessment of Prospero as a betrayer — someone who used the native knowledge he was given of the island in order to enslave and oppress, then how can Prospero be seen as heroic?

The divergent viewpoints, which presumably spring from cultural misunderstandings, ring only too sadly true, given what we know of this country’s history.

Certainly the scenes in which Caliban is plied with alcohol and treated as subhuman by the Europeans become much more disturbing in the First Nations context. A pall is cast on slapstick encounters that, in another production, might have been funny.

At the end of the play, the sheer exhilaration Caliban feels when the Europeans leave the island becomes powerful and understandable.

Although RDC’s The Tempest has visually stunning moments, this is not Shakespeare’s most dramatic vehicle. It might have helped to use a more dynamic First Nations drumming soundtrack.

Meegan Sweet and Logan Shave portray an engagingly wide-eyed Miranda (Prospero’s daughter) and Ferdinand (the son of the King of Naples). When the naive lovers aren’t making goo-goo eyes at each other, however, there’ almost a palpable lack of action, with no sword fights, chases or much humour.

Also in the cast are: Bethany Monaghan as Prospero’s treacherous sister, Antonia, Brendan Hutchison as the King of Naples, Derek Olinek as advisor Gonzolo, Alicia Maedel as the King’s sister, Sabina, and Bronlynn Bleich and Zoe Peters (as butler Stephana and jester Trincula).

The play without an intermission clocks in at a fairly economic one-hour-50-minutes, yet still contains verses that could have been trimmed, such as Prospero’s rambling explanation of how he came to the island. However, audience members will hear such famous passages as: “what’s past is prologue,” “We are such stuff which dreams are made on,” and “O brave new world, that has such people in it!” (There’s also Caliban’s apt remark to slave-owner Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”

The RDC Theatre Studies students proved capable of boiling down Shakespeare’s dense dialogue into understandable stanzas. But nearly every actor needs to slow down, speak up and enunciate for clarity. I missed some key plot points.

Although this version of The Tempest contains hitches, there’s much to admire in the colourful costumes and characterizations. Usher and his cast and crew should be commended for tackling a thorny interpretation with bold creativity.

It runs to Feb. 13.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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