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Rubaboo means stew: This stew is bland

by | Apr 16, 2023 | Review | 1 comment

publicity photo for Rubaboo

Cimmeron Meyer’s set design is one of Rubaboo’s strongest elements.
(Robert Walsh, Andrea Menard, and Karen Shepherd in a photo by Dahlia Katz)

Artistically, Rubaboo is mostly terrible.

But there’s no denying the project’s good intentions. Core creator Andrea Menard, who also stars in this cabaret performance, has set out to explore the history and wisdom of her Métis culture. She’s aiming for truth and reconciliation. All power to her on that front.

And the evening, which ran about an hour and forty minutes the night I saw it, contains one song that really hits home. It’s about residential schools: the abuse, the discovery of the  unmarked graves of over 3,000 children in Canada, and, by implication, the staggering impact of systemic racism. Menard delivers this song with passion and zero sentimentality. It’s a gut punch.

But, for 90% of the show’s running time, the undeniably important thematic content of Rubaboo is appallingly badly rendered.

Remember as you read this that I’m a settler guy reviewing a show about Métis experience. My response will be different from the reactions of folks coming from other perspectives. I’ll miss things. But my job here is to assess the art as honestly and with as much specificity as possible. And I can only do that as the person I am. Please understand that I intend my frankness as a form of respect.


When I complain about the artistry, I’m largely talking about the original songs that Menard wrote with Robert Walsh, who also appears onstage as one of three musicians. Unlike the traditional Indigenous music that’s included and which is arresting, this original material is generic folk pop — sometimes with a country twang but more often not.

Melodically, these songs are bland and the lyrics hold zero surprises or poetry. From the opening number: “We learn about our history as we sing this song … We will learn the wisdom of old.” This is a painfully flat introduction. And these lyrics from later on are typical: “Love is the offering/Love can hold everything.” I’m for love, but these lines are so all-purpose that they are essentially blank spaces.

And then there are the dramaturgical framing devices. Acting as the narrator, Menard tells us near the beginning that, as the evening progresses, we’re going to travel through the four elements of fire, water, wind, and earth. Fair enough. I appreciate being grounded in the natural world and I firmly believe that, especially as we face escalating climate disasters, those of us in the broader culture would be well advised to pay attention to the forms of Indigenous wisdom that address the place of humans in a balanced and sustainable environment. That said, in terms of traveling through time in the theatre, the strategy of announcing the four stages of our upcoming journey backfires. I spent so long being bored by songs about fire that the prospect of enduring another three elements was numbing. And, when we finally got to Earth, it felt like Rubaboo had at least four false endings.

There’s also a mythical/historical framing device in which Menard talks about the disruption of natural balance and potential return to it. Great. I’m in favour of a return to balance. But, again, the execution is off. Every time Menard launches into one of these sections, sound designer Mary Jane Coomber channels her voice through a crazy amount of reverb. The effect is cornball.

And, in evoking The Voice of the Ages, it emphasizes what I think is the basic problem with Rubaboo: it’s essentially a lecture delivered by Menard. I’m not questioning her authority as a Métis women and there’d be nothing wrong with her delivering a lecture if that’s what we’d signed up for. But Rubaboo has invited us to a cabaret. In the theatre. So, for me, it doesn’t work when Rubaboo deals more in bald lessons than evocative stories, predetermined ideas rather than theatrical discovery, and generalities instead of specifics.

Within this context, it’s worth remembering the section about residential schools. In that song, Menard assumes the voice of an abused child. There’s a specific character and a specific, emotionally resonant situation. For me, that works. The rest not so much.

RUBABOO Created by Andrea Menard. Music by Andrea Menard and Robert Walsh. Directed by Alanis King. Coproduced by the Grand Theatre and the Arts Club Theatre Company. On Saturday, April 15. Running at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage until April 30. Tickets

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1 Comment

  1. Sharon Yandle

    A really excellent review that I wish I’d read before I went to this production – although my theatre companion and I truly enjoyed the joy and laughter of the post-performance reviews we offered each other. The bottom line is that whatever the message, art has to be art. Thank you!


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