It’s a tribute to the power of God’s Lake that, after the applause had died down, the audience sat quietly in the theatre for so long that stage manager Jethelo Espaldon Cabilete felt compelled to tell us that the show was over.
We knew that God’s Lake was over, of course. But we were still in its meditative hold and, in that space, there’s a lot to absorb.
God’s Lake is verbatim theatre: all of its text is drawn directly from interviews that were conducted over a two-month period in 2017 on the God’s Lake Narrows First Nation and in Winnipeg.
Its starting point is the 2013 murder of a 15-year-old girl named Leah Anderson. On January 4, Leah headed out to go skating but she never made it to the arena. Two days later, her badly beaten body was found on a remote trail. There were defensive marks on her hands and RCMP investigators believe Leah’s killer was someone she knew and was comfortable with.
The likelihood that Leah’s killer is someone from her own community — someone who is still at large — is the stone that allows us to sink into this piece, which is a portrait of life on the reserve rather than a procedural investigation of a crime. It’s a meditation on the joys and beauties of God’s Lake (the quiet and isolation of the place, the wonders of snowy nights); the ongoing trauma of the residential school system, including its legacies of addiction and multiple forms of abuse; and the attempts by community members to overcome that inheritance through forgiveness and love. Two of the most interesting characters are men who are attempting to bring stability to the community by taking law-enforcement jobs. These guys want to make positive change but find themselves isolated because of their association with colonial institutions.
I got a lot out of the text of God’s Lake, which was assembled primarily by Francesca Albright and Kevin Lee Burton for Victoria’s Castlereigh Theatre Project, but my sense is that the script could be more effectively organized. I appreciated the feeling of sinking into the community, but I also experienced God’s Lake as long and meandering, even though it only runs just over an hour. To me, some material feels inconsequential, several passages feels repetitive, and I longed for clearer organizing principles that might have resulted in a more satisfying sense of accumulation. That said, I’m a white settler critic. Co-writer Burton is originally from God’s Lake Narrows and brings his own sensibilities to the piece. I’m responding from my perspective because I’ve been invited to do so and because I hope it might be helpful.
I also want to celebrate other elements.
Visually, God’s Lake is very, very spacious and pleasing. In James Insell’s set design, a simple wooden dock breaks through what appears to be a torn piece of paper. This creates three vertical projection surfaces — one on either side of the dock and one behind it — that the projection designers from Astros Media have a field day with. The projected images of the reserve — the wordless beauty of the water and trees, the poverty, the sense of home, the graphic wonder of falling snow — say a lot. There’s a simplicity and humility in these images that make them feel elemental.
And those same adjectives, “simplicity” and “humility” can be applied to the four performers who are working under director Britt Small’s guidance. Simplicity isn’t easy to achieve onstage — it takes a lot of confidence and craft — but the work offered here by Aqqalu, Nick Benz, Ashley Cook, and Erica Wilson is thoroughly and impressively unadorned. In this accomplished company, Cook, a recent Studio 58 grad, is a standout.
I’ve also got to mention the liquid, dreamlike score by Ziibiwan and Melody McKiver.
Because it has a short run, God’s Lake isn’t going to get a lot of media attention. But I encourage you to see it.
GOD’S LAKE By Francesca Albright and Kevin Lee Burton. Directed by Britt Small. A Castlereigh Theatre Project presented by Presentation House Theatre at the Presentation House Theatre on Thursday, February 20. Continues at Presentation House until February 23. Tickets to Presentation House. God’s Lake will play in Victoria’s Metro Studio Theatre on February 28 and 29. Tickets to Metro Studio Theatre.
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