REVIEW: Niizh at Native Earth Performing Arts

Photo by Kaytee Dalton

A thrilling number of plays about strong, Indigenous women coming of age have graced GTA stages in the past year. From Soulpepper’s Kamloopa to Theatre Aquarius’ Salt Baby to Tarragon’s My Sister’s Rage (and more!), audiences have had the privilege to bear witness to a number of delicate, specific personal journeys, each one at the same time loaded with hard-hitting questions about identity, language, and loss. 

Native Earth Performing Arts’ Niizh weaves in nicely to this tapestry of stories, offering us a self-described rom-com with a bittersweet edge. NEPA artistic director Joelle Peters holds the pen on the charming narrative, led by Lenna (Theresa Cutknife), who’s about to head off to college after 18 years on a reserve in Southwestern Ontario. This move to the big city might feel impossible for a less supported young person, but Lenna has a loving, supportive community around her: Jay (Aren Okemaysim), her mischievous, good-natured big brother; KC (PJ Prudat), a feisty, auntie-like neighbour; and father Billy (Jason McDonald), who clearly doesn’t want Lenna to leave, but who loves her with his whole heart. Enter Sam (Kole Durnford), KC’s alluring, endearingly geeky nephew — he’s new to the reserve and, just like Lenna, is on a path to significant personal growth.

From the above you might be able to gather the events of the play: Lenna meets Sam and develops a crush. Her plans to move away falter as the implications of living on her own in a new place become clearer. Her relationship with her father falters, and the truth of what happened to her mother becomes clearer in an affecting climax.

desirée leverenz’s direction perfectly captures the cringe of a first love, the will-they-or-won’t-they of a first hand-hold, first kiss. At times Niizh feels like an after-school special (complete with the long-suffering dad, annoying big brother, and impossibly cool, older female friend) in the best of ways, and leverenz ekes out that young-of-heart humour and beauty from every possible beat of Peters’ script. Niizh runs a long 100-or-so minutes, and could use an intermission — I was surprised at the choice to run the play as a one-act — but leverenz keeps things moving on Nancy Perrin’s attractive, smartly composed set, which offers the actors lots of space to play with in Lenna’s home, KC’s porch, and the small pockets of nature around Lenna’s reserve.

Niizh’s cast is lovely, led by Cutknife who, though evidently still sick on her first night of performances (Peters stepped in for the play’s official opening last week), is a compelling, sympathetic Lenna. McDonald brings all the necessary layers to Billy, the gruffness and sensitivity of a man who’s had to contend with love and loss in more ways than he might have hoped. Kurnford and Okemaysim both have excellent chemistry with Cutknife, pushing Lenna’s buttons in just the right ways, always finding the laughs. And Prudat is a standout, effortlessly funny and warm, finding sly moments for humour in the form of facial expressions and hand gestures that almost seem improvised.

Peters’ play has all the hallmarks of a good rom-com: all the cheese, all the heart, all the stakes. Some moments feel like they might benefit from further workshopping: the play is punctuated by abstract, highly choreographed moments in which bird imagery overtakes Niizh’s otherwise naturalistic timbre. These interludes prompt interesting questions about  Lenna’s internal struggles, but occasionally feel at odds with the aesthetic thrust of the rest of the show.

Overall, Niizh soars where it wants to and revels in juicy, laugh-out-loud cringe that left every person in the audience smiling on the night I attended. A lighthearted, dandy night at the theatre.

Niizh runs at Native Earth Performing Arts until April 12–30, 2023.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.