Inheritance: a pick-the-path experience is more successful as a political and educational tool than it is as art — and it’s worth seeing.
The writing team of Daniel Arnold, Darrell Dennis, and Medina Hahn has created an insanely ambitious format. In the set-up for their story, Abbey and Noah, who are settler folks from the city (Vancouver, apparently), travel to a remote part of the province where Abbey grew up on a vast parcel of land owned by her family. Abbey’s dad still lives there and their collective plan is to develop an eco-resort to turn a profit while employing some of the local Indigenous people. But, when Abbey and Noah get to her family’s cabin, her dad is nowhere in sight. An Indigenous guy named Frank is there, however, staying in the cabin. And Frank believes his people have a more legitimate claim to the land than Abbey’s do.
At several points during the evening — this is where the format gets nuts — the audience is invited to vote, using handheld devices, on where the plot should go. All told, there are 50 potential plotlines that the writers/actors must be prepared to negotiate. That requires a lot of flexibility — and memorization (about seven hours’ worth).
For me, as a settler, some of the most resonant elements of the evening were the opening ceremony and the talkback after the show. In the ceremony on opening night, Shane Point from the Musqueam Nation gently and generously emphasized the commonality of human experience and, in the talkback, Indigenous leader Miles Richardson spoke movingly about neighbourly relations between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of Haida Gwaii. (There’s a talkback every night but, unfortunately, not a public ceremony.)
In the show, the head twist I’m most grateful for was the opportunity to consider my responsibility as a property owner within the colonial system. As it turns out, I’m much more lenient with myself in real life than I was when considering options for the characters in the play: when it comes to other people, I’m righteous.
The Annex usually feels like a school gym but, using black curtains, set designer Lauchlin Johnston has created a more intimate performance space, an alley-theatre set-up with a playing surface of gently folded planes. Overhead, projection designs by Sammy Chien/Chimerik use watercolour-like images to evoke specific locations.
The pick-your-path thing is cool as far as it goes, but the writing is problematic. The conventions of the plot feel arch and unrealistic — more like the stuff of a (pedestrian) video game than real life: Abby’s dad has left behind a treasure map that leads to a deed; whoever gets to it first wins the property. In the version of the plot that I saw on opening night, characters were forever threatening to shoot one another, which is hyperbolic. Because the story is so obviously invented, I couldn’t invest in it.
It’s not surprising that the characters in a narrative like this feel more like vehicles than human beings. In the plot that I saw, Frank got saddled with tons of historical information. It’s important to recognize that the Canadian government is failing in its legal obligations to Indigenous citizens but, in the theatre, it’s important to make that point theatrically rather than rhetorically. (Dennis, who’s playing Frank, does an amazingly good job of staying personable while downloading this stuff.) Abbey, who’s resistant to Frank’s arguments, comes across as a two-dimensional conservative. And Noah, the naïve liberal, is in a broadly comic zone of his own, largely because Daniel Arnold leans into the stereotype so heavily.
Theatrically, the evening isn’t a huge success, but the event still is — for me anyway. Theatre on Canada’s West Coast is uniquely engaged with the processes of reconciliation. Inheritance is part of that work and that discovery. In the theatre on opening night, I could feel the mutual respect and generosity. That’s all real and it’s a good thing.
INHERITANCE: A PICK-THE-PATH EXPERIENCE By Daniel Arnold, Darrell Dennis, and Medina Hahn. Directed by Herbie Barnes. An Alley Theatre and Touchstone Theatre co-production, in association with Vancouver Moving Theatre and community partnership with the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre. At the Annex on Thursday, March 5. Continues until March 15. Tickets.
>> On Saturday, March 14 at 2:00 PT, the performance of Inheritance will livestream at http://livestream.inheritanceplay.ca. You can check in to watch — and vote on plot turns.
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