by John Garfield Barlow
NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
Black Box Theatre, July-August 2004
Most immediately, it's a challenge because it puts straight in our face every uncomfortable stereotype and fantasy, every comfortable fallacy and prickly home truth, about the indigenous people whom white folks can't even, for starters, find a word for. Native Americans? First Nations Persons? Surely not Indians . . . . The three (and a half) young men who are the play's characters are both stereotypes and individuals, stuck, along with the actors who play them, on the one hand, in the roles imposed on them by the unendurably complex situation of "status indian," living "on the res" and subject to all the limitations and constraints of that situation. On the other, at the same time, they're individually imagined characters -- specifically, the pugnacious and naive Paul (Josh Francis), the reflective, occasionally poetic and profoundly angry Joseph (Tim Hill), and the mercurial Peter (Ryan Griffith).
Further, it's a challenge to an audience because it reflects, in an immediate and unmoderated way, the stasis and desperation of the lives of these young men. The audience experiences, too, the stasis, and the desperation. The basic situation is a metaphor for, or one way of thinking of, the larger situation of indigenous peoples in Canada. Paul and Joseph have mistakenly driven Joseph's truck into the new lawn of a cottage built on "Inspiration Point," a place which either is, or can be thought to be, of special importance to the tribe and which has recently been opened up to "development" -- by, of course, rich white folks. The truck is in the lawn up to its axles and Joseph and Paul have -- for all kinds of complicated reasons and rationalizations --been unable to get it out, or to contact anyone to help them get it out. The owners of the property are, of course, absentee. As the action opens, the two have essentially spent the day at the site, smoking endless joints and simply passing the time. We are invited into the aimless, wandering talk of a couple of guys passing the time, and invited to feel some -- perhaps rather a lot -- of the aimlessness of lives spent without much consequence and without much purpose. I was reminded relentlessly of Cheech and Chong, or of the apparently unstructured yet somehow threatening (and at the same time comic) dialogue of a Harold Pinter play.
Things begin to change with the arrival of Peter from a fruitless fishing expedition: as played by Ryan Griffith, he's a sort of antic Misrule figure, stirring things up, inciting others to extremes, pushing things along. By the time the lights go down, we seem set for some sort of apocalyptic party-cum-revolution, with everyone they know invited (through a miraculously revived CB radio, and the good offices of a remarkably cooperative friend, Tony -- played by Greg Shanks, at a control panel at one side of the stage -- at the other end) to come out and have a party, and bonfire, on the ruined lawn. A bonfire which, Peter has suggested, just might get out of hand and burn down the church-converted-to-a-summer-cottage which has come to stand for the non-Native appropriation of Inspiration Point. Will it happen? We don't know, but when Paul -- who has some serious doubts about the wisdom of burning down the church and "reclaiming" Indian Point -- changes his mind and then discovers a cigarette lighter in his pocket, we think, for just a moment, that it might all happen. And that it might all even make, in the world we've been inhabiting for the last hour, some kind of sense.
All this is further complicated by the production, which makes a point -- perhaps a too-obvious point -- about its all being just a play. The show begins with the three main characters at lecterns, in front of the set. The Stage Manager reads the stage directions, as they're enacted by the three, who set the lecterns aside and move into the fairly elaborate set -- including all the objects named and described by the speaker. At two different points during the show, we suddenly drop out of the set; the three actors come forward and set the lecterns up and simply read the lines for a while. At the end, the Stage Manager suddenly begins reading stage directions again, as the characters enact them. "Paul finds the lighter in his pocket," he announces, as Paul does so, and "he flicks it on," as he does that. "Blackout," says the Stage Manager, and there is one. The resonance -- say it, and do it at the same time; hear it, and see it -- is, at the least, bizarre.
Why director Silk has chosen to emphasize the artificiality of the situation so explicitly is not clear to me. On the one hand, it underlines the fact that the play is almost entirely verbal -- in fact, it seems it could easily be a radio play. At the same time, however, it reminds us that really, we don't need the decrepit pickup truck that's been backed onto the Black Box stage (which, not at all incidentally, is used quite creatively by the production's blocking, with the actors climbing onto it, reclining in the bed or across the seat, scrabbling under it for the lost and stuck jack which Paul recurrently tries to retrieve). It also reminds us, perhaps, that our assumptions about the presentation of aboriginal people by white folks needs to be part of what we're challenged to think about here. When these young men half-seriously assert their Native heritage and when we can't tell whether to take the rhetoric seriously or see it as an excuse for a party (and perhaps for a lost and pointless existence), we're pushed, yet again, to confront the endlessly tangled web of rights and obligations and constraints and limitations that seem to have imprisoned the three of them and their truck on the white man's lawn. And, perhaps, on the res. Trapped because of outside, white society, or trapped because they think they're trapped, it doesn't seem to make much difference. As Peter says at one point, "They didn't put us here for our own good. They put us here to die out. We're in quarantine, man."
It's clear that Barlow has created a script which challenges all of us, and offers no easy solutions. He's also created some mesmerizing theatrical moments: Peter's narrative of his encounter with what seems to have been an enraged crane in his boat is, as delivered by Ryan Griffith, compelling and memorable, and each of the three has similar moments. And the play's central image -- the ladyslipper, which, if you pick it, never grows back (like the indigenous culture and language which the three are, sort of, surviving the loss of) has the same kind of resonance.
Easy to watch? No. Entertaining? Sometimes. Worth seeing and thinking about? In spades. As an opening for an exploration of theatre growing out of this community, Inspiration Point could not be a better choice. It will be fascinating to see what this play grows into as Barlow works on it, and what else this promising dramatist produces for us, down the line.
The obvious truth that plays are always in process, and always changing, is of course especially dramatic in the case of plays like those presented in this festival, and the truth of this could hardly have been clearer than in the second performance of Inspiration Point, where it was apparent that the three actors had found their rhythm -- a rhythm implicit on opening night, but unmistakable and compelling Friday night. The snappy, funny and playable dialogue which Barlow provides his characters came even more strikingly to life, and thus so did the characters, and so did the issues. The sense that these were three live human beings with motives and passions -- and, consequently, the sense of an arc in the play from stasis to action -- was more inescapable, and so too was the depth of the ambiguity about "Native values" and the struggle between those values and individuals' own aspirations. Joseph's pain -- torn between his love for an Acadian woman and his suspicion (compounded by Peter's haranguing) that his parents' objections to "marrying out" might be well founded -- seemed more central, and more engaging, and so did Paul's divided loyalties, between his lifetime of singing in the choir and going to Mass, and his sense that it might indeed be time, as Peter kept insisting, for them to make the world recognize that they're not quite all dead yet. And Ryan Griffith's Peter was a masterful performance: vibrant, engaged, unerringly timed, and profoundly intelligent. The tight relationship among the three actors looks like more testimony to the skill of director Ilkay Silk at helping actors become ensembles.
Even more important, perhaps, is the challenge posed by the staging. On the one hand, it's clear that the immediate, contingent reason for the "readers' theatre" staging of two sections in the middle -- and, consequently, the reading aloud of stage directions at various points in the play -- was occasioned by the larger situation: mainly the lack of rehearsal time. But, as you watch, it's clear that in some ways the fact that the play so aggressively poses these problems -- who these three guys are, after all, and what they might reasonably want, what "inheritance" is and what "ownership" might mean -- is that it's all intended by the writer, a view that we hear reinforced as we're reminded that it's a play. If it were a big studio movie, with the truck buried authentically to its axles and the church/cottage standing off there at the side, would it have anything like the same power? It's not a trivial question.
It's already clear that it's going to be fascinating to watch this play, and Barlow, develop. It's still not exactly easy to watch, as our uncomfortable ideas about Native people are made even more uncomfortable, but -- at least as we saw it on Friday night -- it is unremittingly entertaining.