Pawâkan Macbeth

Pawâkan Macbeth is not 1870s Rupert’s Land period-dress Shakespeare, not a Red-Face Scottish Play. Rather, Pawâkan Macbeth is a breathtaking, entertaining, and timely (re)conciliation of Cree traditional narrative and an iconic piece of the European narrative tradition.

As I scrambled on a wet and icy Edmonton November evening to get to the Westbury Theatre in time for Opening Night I wasn’t sure what to expect of this co-production of Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero and Yellowknife’s Akpik Theatre. I knew through my own odd grapevine that this thing had been worked on very hard by a dedicated team and that it was intended as a touring production targetting smaller and/or indigenous communities. Beyond that I knew the buzz that was in the #yegtheatre air: Fusion of Cree tradition and cosmology with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Treaty 6 and 7 territories in the 1870s, and all that implies. 

And a lot is implied!

I rushed to catch up with a gentleman and his young daughter in the crosswalk on 104th Street, hoping to minimize pedestrian delays for motorists on a slippery night. Clearly the father amd daughter were also heading to the Westbury, which I could now see through the lobby windows was very crowded. Clearly the #yegtheatre/Treaty Six buzz had gotten word out that something interesting was happening in the Arts Barns.

I remembered something I’d read somewhere about how the production team had been very careful to consult with Elders about the protocols for presenting ceremony on stage and about how to deal with mention of the Wihtiko, which is at the vital centre of Pawâkan Macbeth. I couldn’t help thinking of the theatrical taboo on uttering the name of the Scottish Play in a theatre. And the friendly “break a leg” of Western Theatre. 

“If you tickle us do we not laugh?”

Pawâkan Macbeth is a (wonderfully sucessful) exercise in coherently fusing 1870s Plains Cree and Elizabethan English, but more importantly the play is about the reconciliation of contemporary peoples. That reconciliation will never be achieved through paternalism or patronizing, through the celebration of the “Indigenous” as something “interesting” to some flake of the upper crust of colonial society, through a continuation of Colonialism. 

You want reconciliation of peoples? Then send out the best of those cultures and let them go toe-to-toe and hand-in-hand in a friendly, honest fusion. Not looking for winners or losers. Just let’s see how things go.

The Westbury lobby was packed. I figured I’d make my way to the box office and probably try to buy a ticket for Friday night. “Oh, we’ve got a few donated comps!” the lady said. “I’m happy to pay for one, if I can,” I said. “Oh. Sure. I guess you can pay.”


And I was in!

What a pleasant, friendly evening so far.

I picked out a seat, third row on the right, aisle seat and was about to sit down when the gentleman and his daughter from the crosswalk came right upnto me. “Would you like to sit in this row?” I asked, stepping aside to let them by.

“Actually, could we have these two seats at the end? I have to give a sort of speech at the beginning and then I need to kinda run back to my seat.”

“Okay,” I said.

Mark Henderson, the gentleman in the crosswalk and co-director of Pawâkan Macbeth and Barry Billinsky, the other co-director didn’t so much give a speech so much as a friendly welcome and reminders about cell phones and Treaty Six Territory. I’m glad I listened to the gentleman and his daughter and gave up my seat. This was all a moment of family time, sort of.

And then the drum started. 

Stuff just got serious.

A stylized opening battle-scene that was all Plains total warfare and far more effective than old Polanski’s gory 1971 opening. This material can go toe-to-toe!

So, it’s late now. Let’s get all reviewy.

Curtis Peeteetuce as Macikosisân is brilliant as is Allyson Pratt as Kâwanihot Iskwew (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth). In fact, all the cast ranges from very good to brilliant. There were a few technical glitches and a few line stumbles, but the thing was smooth and powerful. 

It was both Cree and Shakespeare.

Go see it.

I stayed for a moment at the reception after the play and then wandered off through Edmonton, to my home on Pappaschase and Treaty Six territory and I thought of the words of Big Bear, and of the Playwright, Reneltta Arluk, echoed by Klhcîkosisân (Malcolm) at the end of her play:

Now, in the time of reconciliation, we need to make good on the unity our ancestors agreed to. It is time to step out of comfort zones. To go beyond the blackbox of theatre. To Listen. Pawâkan Macbeth asked Shakespeare to do just that, listen. If Shakespeare can create space for Indigenouse voice, then I am hopeful we are in better days. Plains Cree leader Big Bear asked us to “Remember your ancestors. They had many hardships too. They prayed for better days.” Those days are now.

If we can kill our own individual Wihtikos.

Pawâkan Macbeth plays at the Westbury Theatre until November 27.

The Spotted Cow – A beverage – or maybe a desert

For the past week or so the song “Spotted Cow” from British folk-rock legend Steeleye Span’s Below the Salt album has been going through my head, quietly begging me to be the name of a new beverage.  As regular readers (both of them) will know, I’ve been fiddling about with beverage recipes the last while, like my Mazal Tov Cocktail, my Guavalhalla, and of course, my Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket. I’ll not share my mojito recipe except in person, but I will cautiously share my plan for the Spotted Cow.

Probably obviously, the Spotted Cow is a variation on the venerable Brown Cow: Kahlua and cream or milk. But, how to make it spotted? How to keep the Kahlua as brown islands in the stream of white cream?

I thought for a day or two about some sort of molecular gastronomy solution involving edible alginate, etc., but that seemed too extreme. Finally memories of neighbourhood block parties flooded my mind:  Jell-O Shots!

So, after whipping a pack of unflavoured gelatine into 50 ml of boiling water 

and a miniature of Kahlua (from the freezer) into that (I inverted Mr. Knox’s directions on the sachet),

 I spooned the results into a flexible icecube tray, 

slid it into the fridge and stepped out into the frosty evening to walk to 7-Eleven for a bit of cream.

When I got home the little bottle-shaped Kahlua spots were nicely set and were easily popped out of the tray

and into the waiting glass of cream.

What an odd thing!

I ended up enjoying it with a spoon, as though it were some sort of dish of strawberies and cream going all boozy coffee and Jell-O and my quiet winter evening had been transformed into a strange James Bond morning in Istanbul directed by a late-period Stanley Kubrick but in the hotel roomat the end of 2001.
I think I’ll mix myself a Vesper and leave you (both) with the song that started this mess:

“Hadestown” at The Citadel

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora . . .
— Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book I

I just had to post a hasty note after seeing the first preview performance of Hadestown at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre this evening.

What a piece of work!

Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful, powerful, poetic words and music, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and in the hands of such a talented cast, band of musicians (that trombone!!!), and technical staff, have given new, timely form to the Classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Greek mythic world is here a mythic Great Depression America, a fusion of the Mississipi Delta and the Rust Belt, of the particular and the universal. The whole is made so remarkably topical: While Patrick Page’s Hades is nothing like the President to the south, he does pump up his indentured workers with praise of the Wall they’re building to keep the Enemy (poverty) out of their homeland; the destruction of Persephone’s natural world by unbridled industry can be nothing other than a reference to the environmental precipice on which we teeter; and then those oh-so-current resonances in references to “what happens behind closed doors.”

Apart from praising them to the sky, I don’t want to take a whole lot of time describing all the wonderful details of the production and performances — you should see, hear, and enjoy them yourself.*  What I was particularly struck by about Hadestown (apart from the glorious music and dance) is the play’s firm roots in the Classical myth. This is not a riff on vaguely remembered characters. Hadestown is the product of a deep understanding of both the myth and its profound meaning.

Just before I went to the play, I reread the opening of Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Orpheus and Eurydice passage is quite brief, only a hundred lines of verse or so. But so many images are shared by Hadestown and those hundred lines of Latin verse. The huge tree that dominates the first act of the play parallel’s the catalogue of trees that gather in Ovid to mourn with Orpheus. Orpheus’ awakening of hope in the Chorus of Workers in the play parallels the beautiful passage in the Metamorphoses in which the torments of the dead cease for a moment while Orpheus sings — even Sisyphus is able to climb on his rock and rest for a time. For a moment there is hope even in the depths of Hell.

Hadestown is a most intelligent and engaging retelling and reforming of an ancient myth. a joyous, inexpressibly powerful demonstration that the old stories continue to have profound messages for our lives, our societies, and our deepmost selves. And the biggest, most important and timely message of Hadestown is:



Cos here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin
To sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
— Hermes, in Hadestown



Hadestown continues at The Citadel until December 3, 2017.

See it.

*Audience members from Old Strathcona will likely find Reeve Carney’s Orpheus oddly reminiscent of our own shirtless, rollerskating, guitar-playing guy.



“The Testament of Mary” at Northern Light Theatre

Why have ye no reuthe on my child?
Have reuthe on me, full of murning.
Taket down on Rode my derworthy child,
Or prek me on Rode with my derling.

More pine ne may me ben don
Than laten me liven in sorwe and shame.
Als love me bindet to my sone,
So lat us deiyen bothen isame.

— National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21.

I suspect I’m a bit of an outlier in my opinion of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary. While Northern Light Theatre’s production of the Tony-nominated play is almost uniformly a fine thing (the smoke machine was both distractingly noisy and pretty much unnecessary) I found the play itself fairly ordinary and certainly not up to the “controversial” hype that seems to surround the piece. While chatting before the performance on Hallowe’en I couldn’t help but feel NLT Artistic Director Trevor Schmidt was a little disappointed the promised religious protestors failed to show up. Looking at the half-full house on Two-for-One Tuesday, I imagined free publicity from the local chapter of the Anti-Blasphemy League would have been welcome. But after seeing what is actually a very approachable, not terribly controversial or religiously ground-breaking work, I wonder if the talk in local reviews about controversy might not have made some potential audience members give The Testament of Mary a pass.

In a nutshell, The Testament of Mary is a monologue by a mother grieving for her tragically lost son, a son who’s life and death is being used for political purposes by his followers who are now her handlers. Yes, the mother is Mary, Mother of God, but she speaks for all mothers of children martyred for whatever causes children are being martyred these days. Holly Turner turns in a sterling performance as Mary, the set and sound designs are suitably generic-East-Mediterranean, Mary’s grief and anger satisfyingly expressed.

But the piece itself seems strangely familiar and not fresh.

The description of Lazarus, Zombie-like after his resurrection struck me as remarkably like Kazantzakis’ description of the same poor fellow in chapter 25 of his 1955 The Last Temptation. In Kazantzakis’ novel, Mary feels abandoned by her son, calling his friends “ragamuffins” in P. A. Bien’s translation. Compare Tóibín’s disgruntled Mary referring to Jesus’ friends as “misfits”. In Christ’s final temptation in Kazantzakis’ novel, he witnesses precisely the possibility at the heart of Tóibín’s play: that Christ’s life and death are fictionalized, “based on a true story”, a myth made by Paul and the Apostles. This is hardly the untilled soil of controversy, especially in light of Scorcese’s well-known 1980s film version of Kazantzakis’ novel.

But the portrayal of Mary as the bitterly grieving mother rather than a serene Madonna is a thread running throughout the history of Catholicism and Christianity in general. As one example I cite the early 16th century “Meditation Off the Buryall of Criste and Mowrnyng thereat” a late-Medieval play preserved in Bodleian MS. e Museo 160, in which Mary is described to Joseph by Mary Magdelene as having been gently led away from Golgotha by Zebedee and John (much like Mary’s handlers in Tóibín’s play) in a state of supreme grief and distress. And, contrary to the Gospel of John, this “Meditation” suggests that Christ would not speak to His Mother:

The wo and payn passis alle other.
Was ther neuer so sorowfulle a mother
For inward thogt and cure!
When sho harde hym for his enmyse praye,
And promesid the thefe the blissis aye
And to hirself no word wald saye,
Sche sighid, be ye sure!
(lines 169-175)

Christ spoke to the thief crucified beside Him but would not speak to His own Mother!

The sonne hynge and the moder stood,
And euer sho kissid the droppes of blood
That so fast ran down.
Sche extendit hir armes him to brace,
But sho myght not towch him, so high was the place,
And then sho felle in swoune.
(ll. 176-181)

Mary is described at length as being distraught to the point of collapse. And she is led away by two handlers.

I could go on with examples of the well-trod road Tóibín’s Mary walks, but suffice it to say, for someone who well remembers news of a Paris cinema being firebombed over Scorcese’s film, for someone who remembers the public readings of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses after the issuance of a certain fatwa, watching Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary on the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses seems nothing like controversial. Perhaps each generation must rechew this hay and I am getting old.

The Testament of Mary is certainly worth taking in, but it is in no way controversial.

And, if you want an unbearably powerful portrayal of a mother’s grief, wait and hope for a revival of Nicole Moeller’s The Mothers.

Northern Light Theatre’s production of The Testament of Mary is playing at the PCL Studio Theatre in Old Strathcona until November 4th (2017)