BWW Review: BEARS is a Striking Look at the Struggle and Similarities Between Humanity and Nature
Matthew MacKenzie's award-winning play BEARS has returned to Toronto, taking residency within Factory Theatre. Produced by Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre, the play follows Floyd (Sheldon Elter) as he flees from the scene of a workplace accident. While on the run from the RCMP, Floyd encounters a range of flora and fauna portrayed by an impressive chorus and transitions into a freer, wilder version of himself.
Along the way, Floyd's past comes through in a series of heart-wrenching monologues, supported by the vision-like presence of his late mother (Tracey Nepinak). MacKenzie chooses to utilize a third-person narrative that allows Floyd's character the space needed to transition from a disheartened oil-spill cleanup crewman to a hulking grizzly - and whether that change is literal or metaphorical is left open to interpretation.
Elter is the centerpiece of this show and returns to the role of Floyd with a high level of energy and heart. His delivery is consistently strong and shines brightest in his flashbacks to his mother. With numerous years of experience on stage, Elter leverages his abilities to shift between a beaming 5-year-old and a weary man with the slightest change, making even the animalistic devolution of Floyd believable.
Balancing Floyd is the show's chorus (Shammy Belmore, Karina Cox, Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Zoe Glassman, Rebecca Sadowski, Kendra Shorter, Gianna Vacirca) who convey everything from screeching river otters to a suspension bridge, watching out for Floyd and focusing him throughout the story. While the chorus is able to convey the setting and natural elements around Floyd, there are a few moments where they could have been scaled back a bit to give MacKenzie's great script room to breathe.
As the guide on Floyd's journey, Nepinak portrays Mama with incredible softness while grounding the production beautifully. While she doesn't move nearly as much as the chorus or Elter, she still controls the stage from the sidelines. Her sole interaction with Elter, following the upsetting explanation of the workplace accident, is possibly the most emotional moment in the story.
The design of this production is kept simple and stunning. Projection work (environmental design by T. Erin Gruber) against the mountain-like material backdrop is visually striking, shifting from the colourful mountains of British Columbia to the aurora borealis to the miserable grey of an oil spill to set each scene's tone quickly and effectively. Costumes (Monica Dottor, also co-creator and choreographer) are kept wonderfully simple for Floyd and Mama, but the chorus's tattered tunics seem misplaced when contrasted to the natural creatures and environments they portray.
At its core, BEARS is an intriguing look into what makes us human through the questioning of humanity, and the importance of turning to nature for guidance and support. The entire show is carried by Elter's portrayal, and he shows here that Floyd has the heart of a grizzly, through and through.
BEARS is on stage at the Factory Theatre through March 17, 2019.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.factorytheatre.ca/2018-19-season/bears/
Photo credit: Alexis McKeown