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by | Apr 21, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

Something alchemical is going on here: You used to call me Marie… sustains itself longer than logic tells me it should. The play’s success doesn’t last all the way to the end of its 90 minutes, but there are significant forces at work here.

Tai Amy Grauman’s unapologetically epic script starts with a creation story: a man and a woman meet in the stars and fall in love; as she falls to earth, he promises that he will find her. And, as the play unfolds, he finds her again and again, as they are embodied by various characters, starting in the 1700s and traveling almost into the present day. These characters are all Métis; You used to call me Marie… is, in particular, a celebration of Métis women.

The text is repetitive — or, more accurately, incantatory. It feels like a ritual. Every time the man and woman meet, they recognize one another with the same exchange, which starts with her saying, “You found me!” Every time she becomes pregnant, she reaches up, says, “I swallowed a star”, and touches her belly. A small chorus of voices situates the romances in larger cycles: “Time passes”; “Autumn becomes winter.” Throughout the centuries, we track the health of a garden of sweetgrass and tobacco.

The very odd thing about You used to call me Marie… is that, in the script’s evocation of the elemental, the relationships it presents become generic. We never know enough about any of the incarnations of the central man and woman for the characters they pass through to feel real — or evocative. For me, that was true even when they met as kids in residential school and tried to escape. As in every incarnation, these characters are emblematic rather than realistic. We get virtually no details of their daily lives or shared history. Because of that, the fate that befalls them is strangely abstract. And this dynamic repeats again and again.

Usually, this combination of repetition and abstraction would make me fade out very quickly, but that didn’t happen with You used to call me Marie… largely because, under Lois Anderson’s direction, this production is remarkably stylistically confident.

When we enter the theatre, we encounter a bare stage but, when the show starts, white curtains fall from the grid, and horses — actors playing horses — enter at a gallop. They’re wearing sculptural wire horses’ heads reminiscent of Equus, but thanks to props designer Stephanie Elgersma, these masks come with billowing manes. As the story unfolds, projection designer Candelario Andrade splashes gorgeous gigantic imagery across the curtains: flowered patterns, images of buffalo that look like pictographs. Besides the curtains, set designer Cecilia Vadala offers a long, simple workbench that produces additional trappings for individual scenes. And there’s music. Krystle Pedersen, who leads a lot of the singing, has a particularly powerful, flexible, and warm voice.

Playwright Grauman plays the succession of female lovers with a fierce sense of autonomy. As the men, Aren Okemaysim is openhearted and charming. And Cole Alvis brings detailed movement to her work as a horse named Star.

For me, these strengths kept You used to call me Marie… afloat for about an hour, but, for the next 30 minutes, things sagged in my experience. I reached my saturation point with the text’s repetition, and I started to miss the rewards found in more fully developed narratives: things like thematic accumulation, surprise — and emotion. Emotionally, only one moment really hit home for me in You used to call me Marie… and that was the death of an animal. I’m saying this as a full-on settler, of course; these stories are not my stories and I’m aware that they may land with Métis folks and others very differently. But I also think it’s worth paying attention to what makes that animal’s death stand out. There are several other deaths in You used to call me Marie… , including the passing of children, but the animal in question is an ongoing presence in a way that none of the other characters are. So there’s more accumulation. In the presentation of this death, there’s also more detail, stage time, and dramatic tension.

In the play’s last third, the section about the struggle for Métis land rights in Alberta has the potential to be among the most historically illuminating but, under Anderson’s direction, Okemaysim spends too much time delivering speeches at the same relentless pitch — and this passage becomes one of the least theatrically satisfying in an increasingly unrewarding progression.

Speaking of satisfaction, there’s no climax in You used to call me Marie… , no passage of narrative or thematic fruition.

I was mightily impressed by the surehandedness of the staging of You used to call me Marie… . And, for a surprisingly long time, I appreciated the sense of ritual the script evokes. But, after a while, I started to long for the satisfactions of more fully developed stories.

YOU USED TO CALL ME MARIE… by Tai Amy Grauman. Directed by Lois Anderson. Coproduced by Savage Society and NAC Indigenous Theatre, and presented by The Cultch as part of the Femme Festival. On Friday, April 19. Running at the York Theatre until April 28. Tickets and information

PHOTO CREDIT: (Photo of Tai Amy Grauman and Aren Okemaysim by Emily Cooper)


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Copyright ©2024 Colin Thomas. All rights reserved.