Reimagining Cree cosmology with Pawâkan Macbeth

Reimagining Cree cosmology with Pawâkan Macbeth

This week’s interview features Barry Bilinsky, assistant director of Pawâkan Macbeth – A Cree Takeover. This show will be touring Treaty 6 Territory and will then have a few performances as part of the Chinook Series in partnership with Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival. Scroll down to listen to this episode – the interview starts at 6:53.

It has been a busy week in Edmonton theatre and this is a jam-packed episode. First, I’d like to mention a couple things I posted in the last week: a review of Crave and an interview with John Richardson for The Merry Devil and The Witch of Edmonton.  There’s only one more day in the run of Crave so go see that if you have a chance. You can catch a staged reading of The Merry Devil of Edmonton next week as part of the Winter Shakespeare Festival.

I saw the staged reading of The Witch of Edmonton this week and I was a bit surprised by how accessible it really is – I think we tend to think of older texts, including but not limited to Shakespeare, as being a bit stodgy or difficult. Sure, the language requires you to pay a bit more attention because it’s not what we’re used to hearing every day, but I found The Witch more accessible than Shakespeare both in language and in plot.

It’s described as a “tragi-comedy” which is very apt, because on one hand, you have all these characters cavorting around and being generally ridiculous: a bigamist who’s juggling multiple wives and being typically (but hilariously) sexist, a local yokel who just wants to dance and have a good time. On the other hand, you have the witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, who is based on a real woman charged and executed for witchcraft in this time period. In the play, we see that she’s basically just a lonely old woman and for whatever reason her neighbours hate her, harass her, beat her and accuse her of witchcraft – so she goes ahead and makes a deal with the Devil and begins actually practicing witchcraft, because hey, why not?

This production was directed by Kaleigh Richards and had a lot more blocking than I expected. As it was a staged reading, the performers were all on book and as is usual with such performances, some people had better mastery of the text than others. A couple people really stole the show, including Young Cuddy Banks and the Devil.

I also saw opening night of Happy Birthday Baby J, which is Shadow Theatre’s latest show and a new script by playwright Nick Green. The relationships and situations between the characters are rather convoluted, but in a nutshell it’s about an upper-middle-class couple who have decided to raise their baby free of gender. Not even their friends and family know the sex of the child, whom they call J. They get together with a few friends and family for a birthday party weekend for J, people start drinking and all their dirty laundry starts coming out. So it’s that classic situation where a bunch of dysfunctional people are trapped together and have to face their feelings, have some revelations, and so on.

Pretty much all of the characters are deeply unlikable, which is actually a testament to the strength of the cast – they do an excellent job bringing each person to life in their own unique, deeply flawed and maddening ways. The situation that unfolds is uncomfortable, sometimes just downright cringey. It’s a group of people performing woke-ness at each other, but Green’s script dives into this deeper and shows that sometimes the people who try to pass themselves off as the most woke are anything but.

I will try to get a written review of this show up on my site in the next few days. In the meantime, I’m really curious to hear what other people thought of it, particularly the ending. I was satisfied with the way it ended in terms of how it wrapped up the plot, but it also kind of infuriated me. I could see this play really upsetting a lot of people, so I hope lots of folks go see it and then talk about it. Maybe not on Twitter though, because it would probably devolve into just another Tweet thread wars. One of the things I liked most about Green script was his biting commentary about social media, particularly a monologue about why Instagram is the worst, basically. So yeah, let’s take the conversation off social media – and on to blogs and podcasts!

David Ley, Patricia Cerra, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Grant and Chantal Perron in Happy Birthday Baby J. Photo by Marc. J. Chalifoux Photography.

On to this week’s interview, which features assistant director Barry Bilinsky talking about Pawâkan Macbeth – A Cree Takeover. Written by Reneltta Arluk and produced by Akpik Theatre in Yellowknife, the play debuted in Edmonton in 2017 as a staged reading. It is described as a “groundbreaking reimagining of Shakespeare’s darkest play into Cree history, legend and cosmology.” It is set in Plains Cree territory in the 1870s, before the establishment of First Nations reserves and at a time when First Nations warred with each other and the Canadian Government over territory, food supply and trade. As the website states, “Harsh environments brought immense fear, starvation, and uncertainty together to awaken the darkest of Cree spirits, the Wihtiko – an evil being with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.”

This 2020 version is a full production commissioned by The Stratford Festival. It is about to embark on a tour of Treaty 6 Territory, performing in several schools, and is part of Edmonton’s Chinook Series 2020 in partnership with Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival. It will have a few performances at the Arts Barns on February 6 to 8.

Bilinsky has been with this show from the beginning and he has some excellent insight into the text and its significance, meaning and origin. We have a fascinating discussion about Wihtiko, Shakespeare, Cree language, storytelling and Alberta’s history. Excellent stuff.

Allyson Pratt, Mitchell Saddleback and Sophie Merasty in Pawâkan Macbeth – A Cree Takeover. Photo: Marc J. Chalifoux Photography

Show notes and listings:

Mel’s review of Crave

Mel’s interview with John Richardson

Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing as part of the Winter Shakespeare Festival, Malachite Theatre, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, until Feb 2

The Merry Devil of Edmonton: staged reading, Winter Shakespeare Festival, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Jan 22

Everybody Loves Robbie, Northern Light Theatre, Studio Theatre in ATB Financial Arts Barns, until Jan 25

Crave, Fringe Theatre, Backstage Theatre in ATB Financial Arts Barns, until Jan 25

Cost of Living, Citadel Theatre, until Feb 2

Happy Birthday Baby J, Shadow Theatre, Varscona Theatre, Jan 22 – Feb 9

The Crucible, MacEwan University, Theatre Lab in Allard Hall, Jan 29 – Feb 8

The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Theatre Network, The Roxy on Gateway, Jan 30 – Feb 16

Listen to the episode here.

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