Kinder Morgan's ursuninity

"Bears" -- First Nations recap pipeline route in a hip, droll, multimedia screed  

Hold that grizzly. Photo: Alexis McKeown

Spirit animals, vision quests, a lone warrior stalking the boundless forest with heightened senses; it all conjures up stereotypical cliché of a “noble savage” – contemplative, stoical and wise. And Sheldon Elter, star of Bears, very much looks the part, with the craggy profile and chunky, foursquare stolidity of a Chief Seattle.

But any old-school illusions are shattered as soon as he opens his mouth. Then out pours a stream of idiosyncratic consciousness, dazzlingly scripted by up-and-coming Métis playwright Matthew MacKenzie. There’s lyrical nature poetry, liberally laced with salty invective and quirky similes. And there’s an adrenaline-pumping chase saga, describing the pell-mell flight of Floyd, the play’s protagonist, a disaffected indigenous oilfield roughneck-turned-saboteur.

He’s on the lam across Western Canada in the wake of an unspecified “industrial accident,” with the RCMP and Kinder Morgan’s corporate goons in hot pursuit. We track him through prairies, mountains, clear-cuts, river courses, snowfields, slag ponds and oil spills all the way out to our own B.C. coast, roughly following the route of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline.

Elter narrates the chase in the third person, while at the same time enacting each twist and turn with vigorously economic pantomime. In this he’s aided by an octet of interpretive (and foul-mouthed) chorus dancers, choreographed by Monica Dottor. With consummate grace, leavened by sly humour, they depict everything from grouse to gophers – even a smothering avalanche or a posse of Mounties (complete with Biltmore Stetsons and fluffy toy hobbyhorses).

Costume designer Briana Kolybaba festoons these choristers in a congeries of webs, veils, tights and tatters – all in bleached white, the better to glow in the black light so favoured by “environmental designer” T. Erin Gruber. Bears doesn’t exactly use a stage set, per se; rather an “environment” of mood lighting and patterns projected onto a crinkly collage of paper crags and whorls suspended against a black matte background.

It all takes some getting used to, but this sort of abstract staging admirably suits the free-form action, as well as composer Noor Dean Musani’s moody electronica score. The music turns darker for Floyd’s flashbacks of First Nations lore imbibed from his late mother. She died young of a rare and mysterious (but implicitly tar sands environment-related) disease but, as a ghostly presence (played by Christine Sokaymoh Frederick), she hovers protectively over him every step of the way.

The flashbacks come thicker and faster the farther west he goes. And that’s not all that changes; he finds “his gait widening, his muscles bulging, his sense of smell heightening” and thick shag sprouting on his once-hairless body. It’s not exactly that his trans-continental quest has turned him into a bear; rather he’s just finding his way back to the inner grizzly that he’s been all along, ever since his mother first dubbed him “Cub” back in infancy.

The transformation seems convincing enough to entice a passing she-bear (danced by Gianna Vacirca) into a touching, lumberingly erotic and zoomorphically credible pas de deux that is a highlight of the show.

Bears is a co-production of Edmonton’s Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Pucntuate! Theatre, under the artistic direction, respectively, of Frederick and MacKenzie. It runs through May 12 at The Cultch with the usual roster of foundation and governmental sponsors – though without any backing from the Alberta Arts Council, MacKenzie tartly notes.

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