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BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's THE REZ SISTERS Is a Poignant Exploration of Humanity and Grief


The Stratford Festival's Production of the Tomson Highway Play Is Both Heartbreaking and Beautiful

BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's THE REZ SISTERS Is a Poignant Exploration of Humanity and Grief

The Tomson Highway play, THE REZ SISTERS was supposed to debut on a Stratford Festival stage in the 2020 season, but of course those plans were put on hold due to the pandemic. Over a year later, the Festival made sure to include it in its unique 2021. The show opened Wednesday night under the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy. Directed by Jessica Carmichael, THE REZ SISTERS is the story of seven indigenous women who live on a Reserve on Manitoulin Island. Each woman has endured trauma throughout her life and the effects of those traumas are layered into their everyday lives. One of them is also dying of cancer - a fact that is rarely acknowledged by the characters but feels like a constant, thick presence in the air between them all. Bonded by a desire to experience more in life, the women set out on a quest to attend "the Biggest Bingo in the World" in Toronto. Along the way, truths are shared, realities are faced, and relationships between them continue to shift and change.

This story of anticipatory grief, loss, family, and friendship is simultaneously simple and complex. The eight person company portrays this story beautifully with each character having a moment to bare their soul to the audience and to one another. The play opens with Pelajia Patchnose (Jani Lauzon) working on her roof telling her sister Philomena (Tracey Nepinak) of her dream of getting away from the Reserve, which she has come to resent, and going to Toronto. A visit from half-sister Annie Cook (Nicole Joy-Fraser) sparks the discussion of Bingo, and it becomes clear that Philomena, like Annie, is a big fan. Another prominent character from the moment the play begins is Nanabush (Zach Running Coyote). A symbolic figure in Anishinabai mythology, Nanabush is a spiritual teacher. He appears in this play during moments of despair but also moments of happiness. Early on in the play, he appears wearing feathers made of the plastic from an IV bag--serving as a constant reminder of the ongoing health struggle that the character of Marie-Adele Starblanket (Lisa Cromarty) is facing. Marie-Adele actually interacts with Nanabush throughout the play, as she faces her own mortality and prepares for her transition from one realm to another. She is one of only two characters who can see him, and her relationship with him shifts as she comes closer to accepting her reality. The other character who can seemingly see Nanabush is Zhaboonigan Peterson (Brefny Caribou), a sweet and gentle young woman living with an intellectual disability who had been tragically orphaned and adopted by Veronique St. Pierre (Christine Frederick) and her husband. We learn later in the play that the loss of her parents is far from the only trauma Zhaboonigan has endured. The story she shares of her brutal sexual assault intentionally parallels the real life story of Helen Betty Osborne, a Cree woman from Manitoba who was kidnapped and murdered in 1971. With Canada facing a pandemic of apathy and indifference with regards to murdered and missing indigenous women, it is so important that a play like this allows us to see through the eyes of indigenous women, and even more important that it takes this opportunity to remember a real person who was so tragically taken from the world.

The final character we meet is Emily Dictionary (Kathleen MacLean). Of everyone, Emily has spent the most time off the Reserve, having done some travelling with the Rez Sisters Motorbike gang. Tough and worldly on the outside, Emily eventually opens up about the tragic event that brought her back to the reserve.

Though this play does not shy away from trauma and grief, there are also moments of levity and light. When it becomes clear that all seven women have a clear dream of what they would do if they won big at Bingo, they devise a plan to get themselves to "The Biggest Bingo in the World" in Toronto. The joy and excitement and the all too relatable budget and planning details lead to some funny moments for the characters. Nepinak is great here as Philomena hilariously proclaims that she needs to relieve herself and later speaks in detail of her dream of purchasing a fancy toilet - only to later touchingly confide in her sister that if she were to win at Bingo, she would use it to search for the child she gave up at birth. The way each woman has so much pain beneath the surface but uses humour and superficial things to bury it further is beautifully explored throughout the play.

The ladies face some obstacles along the way, but they make it to Bingo where the Game Master, also played by Running Coyote (or perhaps 'played' by Nanabush) takes the stage. This is a fun and engaging scene and Zach Running Coyote is excellent here, as is Cromarty, as Marie-Adele is forced to confront her fate. The sadness combined with strength, and eventual resolve that she brings to the role is heartbreakingly beautiful.

The play ends where it began, back at the Reserve, with Pelajia back on the roof. We see the women interact with each other again and some relationships are changed or strained. Some are also improved. There are moments where what is left unspoken is even more powerful than what is spoken and the director and performers clearly understand this and convey it beautifully. This is especially true in the interactions between Pelajia and Philomena when it is revealed that Philomena did win some money and opted to get herself a toilet rather than seek out the identity of her missing child.

In a year where humanity has been tested and challenged and forced to cope with loved ones' opinions and decisions that we may not agree with, this play feels very timely. It also of course feels incredibly necessary to elevate indigenous voices and indigenous stories in a day where Canadians are finally being forced to fully acknowledge the atrocities that we have subjected our indigenous communities to over the past several decades. It is a beautiful and relatable story about life, grief, trauma, and sisterhood, and it is beautifully told by all involved.

Photo Credit: David Hou

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