Review: Theatre Projects Manitoba’s Reservations

theatre-projects-manitoba-reservations-cast
Steven Ratzlaff, Sarah Constible and Tracey Nepinak star in Reservations, now playing at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Image courtesy CBC.

I hate being late.

My friend and I jogged a few blocks from our parking spot so that we would be on time for Reservations. We made it, with extra minutes to spare, but I found that I wasn’t the only one that had this concern.

Reservations is two one-hour plays stitched together to be one normal-length play with the same theme. In the first act, aging farmer Pete wants to give away his former farm land to the Siksika people, since it was originally theirs before the settlers came in. He is also worried about running out of time.

Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about indigenous culture and issues. As much as I try to pay attention to news articles and be aware of the world, it’s not something I’m actively involved in. I wondered if playwright and actor Steve Ratzlaff shared the same experience. Why a non-indigenous man would write a play about indigenous issues intrigued me. Of course, these stories need to be shared, but it takes caution and great care to write about a culture that isn’t your own. So I asked him during the talkback. He told me that for the second act, he came across “a story” that moved him and he followed the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. And for the first act, he said was influenced by people he knew in Alberta. And that was it.

Alright, thanks Steve.

The stories, though framed by indigenous issues, were about white people. The first act focused on the struggle between a father and his entitled daughter and her potential inheritance going away. The second act was about a couple who fostered indigenous children and didn’t want them to be re-integrated into their “place of origin.” Out of the three actors, one was indigenous. I appreciated that Ratzlaff didn’t try to write stories rooted in indigenous perspectives – because frankly, that’s not his place to do so.

Actress Tracey Nepinak had only good things to say, though. During the talkback, she said it was “brave” for Theatre Projects to be taking on a show dealing with these issues.

I see a lot of musicals (if you haven’t noticed by now), but it’s been a long time since I saw a play without singing. The last honest-to-goodness play I saw may have been my high school’s production of The Princess and the Pea six years ago. So although the structure of experimental plays aren’t necessarily something I’m experienced in, I know it when I see a good stage story. Though I walked away from the play initially feeling content with my theatre experience, after reflecting for a while, I realized it lacks some basic storytelling pillars. With both plays, there was no protagonist. None of the characters make any choices, which means that none of the characters have story arcs or progress in any way. This was deeply unsatisfactory.

Despite the literal 20-minute Heidegger lecture in the middle of act two, the thing that really took me out of the play was the use of the c-word. A woman says it to another woman (which I have never encountered in real life) in the middle of an argument. The male playwright knew exactly what kind of reaction he was going to get with that word, and so for its use, it’s a cheap sucker punch and lazy.

The set was the star of the show. The actors interact with a simple table and chairs most of the time, but the three hanging projector screens in addition to the backdrop is the real beauty. They show beautiful prairie fields blowing in the wind, dipping from colour to greyscale depending on the intended mood of the scene.

Though the messages are well-intentioned, Reservations leaves the audience grasping at straws. These two mini-plays should have been two flushed-out, two-act plays with story arcs and resolutions. They don’t have to be happy resolutions or even complete ones, but when your audience doesn’t applaud at the end of the act because they don’t think the story is over, you have a problem.

Reservations runs through March 20 at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Tickets are available at TheatreProjectsManitoba.ca.

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