This production marks the fortieth anniversary of the first appearance of the play on this stage in 1969, when it was the first English-language play to open the National Arts Centre. There are two issues here: the quality of the production and how well the script stands up after forty-two years.
The set, with its five distinct areas, allows the action to switch effortlessly in time and place. The design of each area illustrates its character: the rigidity of the court system, the beauty and flexibility of the rez (reservation), the ugliness and complexity of the charity offered to city Indians. The railroad serves as both a conduit and barrier, effectively substantiating Rita Joe’s assertion that she can’t find a way home. The forestage looks a bit like the rez, but without the beauty and the peace.
Lisa C. Ravensbergen was exquisite as Rita Joe. More than anything it was her body movement that expressed the character, backed up by facial expression and voice and her costume, particularly the flowing nature of her skirt, which along with the lacings on her knee-high moccasins, beautifully emphasized her free-flowing lower body movement, particularly the gestures of her legs and feet which were a significant element in expressing her free-spirited youth.
Rita Joe spends a lot of time before the magistrate, played by Layne Coleman. Mr. Coleman seemed to be having an off night. His performance seemed wooden and prone to the occasional lost line. I expected more.
There are some very unsympathetic characters in the play, and some that tread a broadly drawn line between good and evil. Pierre Brault’s Mr. Homer and Kevin Loring’s Jaimie Paul are two of these characters who interact with each other and with Rita Joe. Mr. Homer is the character of interesting complexity in that he helps Indians with problems in the city, but does so with a smiling veneer over his own prejudice. For Jaimie Paul, Homer is the catalyst and focal point for his disintegration from naïve optimist to self-destructive rebel. Both of these characters play a significant part in the disintegration of Rita Joe. It is interesting to see an actor of Brault’s considerable talents deliver such a nuanced role, especially since he was placed with his back to the audience during the evocative sandwich scene confrontation with Jaimie. This was one scene I felt could have been staged more effectively. Loring brought intensity and high drama to the role of Jaimie Paul, but at times it felt a little over the top. I would have liked to have seen more humanity in the character, perhaps even more tenderness.
Another character that treads this line is Todd Duckworth’s priest. Duckworth played the priest was just the right degree of self serving piety. Particularly in the prison scene, when his party line advice so completely ignores Rita Joe’s real needs. It was here that Ravensbergen delivered a critical line that disappointed me. The line is “Go to hell.” There is more to the line than she gave it, and she is quite capable of delivering it with more effect.
The ensemble playing in this production was very effective, particularly the movements of the Indian men as a group. Whether they were cavorting or dancing, they played in relation to each other and to the action, with wit or menace as the situation demanded.
Michelle St. John’s voice is powerful, on pitch, and effective, and gave the production a powerful poetic element.
Ryga’s script is showing its age. In the forty-two years since it was written, we have learned a great deal about how our society has treated Indians. When the play was written, the scandal of the residential schools was not public knowledge, nor was much attention paid to the disappearance of Indians who had migrated to cities, become homeless, become drug addicted, become victims of cultural differences and prejudices that they could not understand. Ryga’s play, which skimmed the surface of some of these issues and focused on one, seems rather tame in the light of what we know; as well, certain situations in the play seem melodramatic now. But we must not read history backwards. This play is rightly accepted as the beginning of modern Canadian theatre, as it demonstrates a still-modern sensibility in its approaches to distorting time and space in order to create useful juxtapositions in which, for example, Rita Joe answers the magistrate’s question by speaking in the context of a previous conversation on the rez. In that way, we learn the answer but the magistrate does not, thereby underlining the ironies of the situation.
Another way in which we can see that things have changed since 1967 is that all the Indian roles are played by Indians, and that is no longer unusual.
Performance reviewed: May 9, 2009 7:30 PM running time about two hours plus intermission.
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The Ecstasy of Rita Joe
Written by George Ryga
Directed by Yvette Nolan
Musical Director: Micah Barnes
Set Designer: Phillip Tidd
Costume Designer: Catherine Hahn
Lighting Designer: Michelle Ramsay
Choreographer: Michelle Olson
Composers: Jennifer Kreisberg and Michelle St. John
The Cast (in alphabetical order)
David Joe….. August Schellenberg
Mr. Homer/Murderer….. Pierre Brault
Magistrate….. Layne Coleman
Young Indian Man/Witness/Murderer….. Ryan Cunningham
Priest/Witness/Murderer….. Todd Duckworth
Young Indian Man….. Telly James
Policeman/Witness/Murderer….. Darcey Johnson
Eileen Joe (Rita Joe’s sister)….. Falen Johnson
Jaimie Paul (Rita Joe’s friend)….. Kevin Loring
Teacher/Old Woman….. Renae Morriseau
Young Indian Man/Murderer….. Jeremy Proulx
Singer….. Michelle St. John
Rita Joe….. Lisa C. Ravensbergen