BWW Review: Profound Beauty in ALMIGHTY VOICE AND HIS WIFE at Soulpepper
ALMIGHTY VOICE IS AND HIS WIFE is an enormous play, spanning an incredible breadth of theatrical technique and exploring, in depth, some of the most challenging questions of Canadian cultural memory. When Almighty Voice (James Dallas Smith) kills a cow to celebrate his wedding the clever young White Girl (Michaela Washburn), the Mounties throw him in jail, like they did his father, like they did so many indigenous men in the 19th century, and like they do, still, today, in shocking numbers. Almighty Voice escapes, and he and White Girl begin their life on the run, aided by friends and family from within their tribe.
Act one of ALMIGHTY VOICE is achingly romantic, from White Girl's pledge to stay by her husband's side, to his tragic death at the hands of 100 armed mounted officers. It challenges nearly every common stereotype about indigenous people: Almighty Voice and White Girl are brave, loyal, hard-working, and principled. Moreover, the story rejects some of the uglier conventions of Canadian storytelling by shining a spotlight on indigenous characters, and leaving the white men off stage.
But act two of ALMIGHTY VOICE flips it all on its head. The starry romance of the plains of Saskatchewan is replaced with the tawdry set of a vaudeville show. James Dallas Smith, who cut a heroic figure in the first act, returns as Almighty Ghost, disoriented, feebled. He is accompanied by Washburn as the cruel Interlocutor, a sort of spectral M.C., a pale-faced man whose idea of a good laugh is a Wounded Knee pun. The second act is discomfiting, shocking - and funny. And in that way, even more shocking.
Daniel David Moses' script, which, since its publication in the early '90s, has become a staple reading assignment in universities across the country, dwells on the relationship between history and entertainment. He reminds us that the supposedly objective facts we find in textbooks have a lot in common with the stories that get told in movies and plays - after all, historians have the power to omit details, to emphasise whatever they want to be seen, to weigh the preponderance of evidence according to their own assumptions.
But Moses goes even further by addressing the complicitness of the audience as well: it is only because we laugh at the Interlocutor's sick jokes that he feels comfortable telling them. Everyone has a role in pursuing the truth.
Michaela Washburn plays an extraordinary range as the young, naive, but bold and passionate White Girl and later as the foul Interlocutor, shedding her immaturity and growing a showman's slick veneer. The morbid humour of her second character, although ugly, is kind of brilliant, and Washburn pulls it off with some truly boss comedic chops. Likewise, Smith guides his character on a journey from hero to fool to man nimbly, and with incredible nuance.
Ken MacKenzie's set twinkles with romance and powerfully evokes a distant time and place. It is the perfect setting for a pretty perfect interpretation of a Canadian classic. Jani Lauzon has realised a vision of ALMIGHTY VOICE that thunders with drama and crackles with thought.
SOULPEPPER THEATRE's ALMIGHTY VOICE AND HIS WIFE runs through 10 NOVEMBER at the YOUNG CENTRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit soulpepper.ca
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz