Bears is magical—until it’s not

Sheldon Elter stands in front of dancers in Matthew Mackenzie's Bears.

The performances and design elements in Bears work well, but the script repeats itself. (Photo by Alexis McKeown)

There’s only so far you can go on style and good intentions. Bears looks fantastic and its political heart is in the right place. But the script is badly built, so it gets boring.

Sheldon Elter, who plays Floyd, narrates his character’s journey in the third person. When Floyd becomes the prime suspect in a workplace accident in Alberta’s oil patch, he flees through the woods to the BC coast following the route of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline. Floyd has always felt an affinity with bears and, as a travels west, he becomes suspiciously hairy and his haunches get more muscular.

A chorus of seven female dancers heightens the sense of magic as they transform into all sorts of creatures, including grouse and salmon.

There’s a wonderful sense of humour in Matthew Mackenzie’s script: “Chickadees were something a guy could count on, like caffeine and momentum”; “His sense of smell was heightened to the extreme: he could tell which squirrels were menstruating.”

Thanks largely to Monica Dottor’s choreography, the production is viscerally rewarding. There’s a hand-slapping sequence that deftly evokes mayflies, which are referred to here as ephemera, and a lyrical passage in which the women appear as plants: “Wildflowers speckled the meadow like freckles on a ginger.” And, in the funniest sequence, the dancers adopt the intense, slightly stunned focus of prairie dogs.

Elton is a charismatic performer. A big guy, he moves with as much fluidity as the dancers. His voice has the resonance of a musical instrument. And he is so focused that he grounds the evening with all the inevitability of gravity.

Erin Gruber’s scenic design is lovely: mountains that look like they’re made out of paper hang on black webs and are beautifully lit.

But what’s the story about? Yes, Floyd is running away, but from what, exactly? What was the nature of the workplace accident, what was Floyd’s role, and what are the consequences if he gets caught? Because playwright Mackenzie doesn’t give us any of these details until the very end of his tale—and even then they’re generic—he fails to create enough narrative tension to draw us through his story.

Floyd does have a goal of sorts: he wants to become friends with some grizzlies. But the supposed obstacles he encounters are so easily overcome that they never feel real. Every time Floyd gets himself in a tight spot, buried in an avalanche, say, or sucked into a whirlpool, magical creatures—helpful chickadees, otters, and butterflies—come to his aid.

Because nature magically supports him, Floyd learns virtually nothing on his quest and neither do we. Mackenzie’s script is unapologetically anti-pipeline, which is great. I am also anti-pipeline. But there are no nuances in Mackenzie’s thematic approach—no surprises and no insight. Bears isn’t a thematic exploration: it’s a decorative illustration of a preconceived position.

And so much of what delighted at the beginning of the evening repeats itself until it is no longer welcome: the helpful creatures, for instance, and a device in which Floyd’s dead mother repeatedly appears to dispense maternal wisdom. I’m also thinking of the script’s basic joke, in which something colloquial is butted up against something eternal. When Floyd wades into a lake, he describes “the silt accepting his weight like a giant Posturepedic mattress.” This formulation is great the first few times you hear it. After that, not so much.

Bears preaches to the choir. I suppose you could argue that even the choir needs uplifting. But Bears lost this chorister long before it ended.

BEARS Written and directed by Matthew Mackenzie. Presented by Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre. In the Historic Theatre at The Cultch on Wednesday, May 9. Continues until May 12.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.


  1. I am glad you liked some of this play but am so sorry that it seems your heart closed to further possibility(ies), or to perhaps allowing an offering to be what it is rather than fit a particular prescription of what ‘your’ or ‘the’ notion is of a play. That you so easily closed the door for yourself and potentially for others to truly witness and experience this very playful, powerful, and meaningful work is troubling to me. You do know the power of your words, yes? I have a wondering as to what it is that actually bores you? Perhaps the role of theatre critic needs to grow and evolve into something more positive, or that you need to create more yourself.

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