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REVIEW: Women of the Fur Trade makes a heartthrob of Louis Riel

iPhoto caption: Photo by Kate Dalton.
/By / Apr 18, 2024

There’s a war going on out there somewhere, and Louis Riel isn’t here.

It’s “eighteen-hundred-and-something-something,” per one of the women onstage, and things in Treaty One territory aren’t going so hot. The women of the fur trade are trapped inside a fort, swaying back and forth in rocking chairs and waiting for the men in their lives to return home. But who are the men, really? And where are they? What lies ahead for the people of the Reddish River, and what legacy will they leave behind?

Frances Koncan’s Women of the Fur Trade re-imagines history through a Kardashian-inspired vernacular and with a heaping dose of whimsy, searching for the female side of a narrative often dominated by Riel and the men in his way. As she admits in her program note, Koncan’s play is a lot of “women talking” — and indeed, that’s a trope most of us have decided we’re fine with following the success of Sarah Polley’s filmed adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel, so why can’t we be fine with it in the context of Indigenous women? After a half hour or so, the women-sitting-around-talking-ness of Koncan’s play becomes a non-issue — the individual characters are so lived-in, tenderly written, and thoughtfully directed that their relative physical stasis is a feature, not a bug, and it’s one that allows the text to shine.

There are three women of the fur trade, as Koncan sees it. There’s Marie-Angelique (played by a lovely Kelsey Kanatan Wavey), who’s in love with Louis Riel. They’ve never met, but he’d be an idiot not to fall for her girlish charm — as portrayed by Wavey, Marie-Angelique is endlessly caring, if a little bumbling, and her heart is as big as the prairie sky. Then, of course, there’s Eugenia (a funny and fiery Lisa Nasson), dressed in bright colours and armed with prickly demeanor about the state of Reddish River. She has less-than-fond memories of Riel, and hardly hides her feelings of contempt when Marie-Angelique brings up her crush. Finally, there’s Cecelia (a consistent Cheri Maracle), who’s white, and who often seems to forget the opposing realities between herself and the Indigenous women around her.

And, of course, we meet Riel, played with style and spunk by Jonathan Fisher, and Thomas Scott, played with outstanding comic timing by Jesse Gervais (and bringing to mind his recent and equally knockout performance as the butler in the Grand Theatre’s Clue).

Kevin Loring directs the revival version of Women of the Fur Trade currently playing at Native Earth Performing Arts, a co-production between NEPA, National Arts Centre Indigenous Theatre, and the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Loring’s direction perfectly aligns with Koncan’s world-building — a repeated visual gag of Canada Post baskets is funny every time thanks to Loring’s timing, even though it’s used more than a handful of times throughout the play’s intermissionless two hours. In Loring’s care, Koncan’s jokes always land. While the relationships between the women onstage don’t always feel perfectly fleshed-out, the individuals and the world around them do, making Women of the Fur Trade an enjoyable time spent at the theatre.

Of particular note is Lauchlin Johnston’s scenic design. Johnston has draped the playing space of the Aki Studio in ribbons hung vertically, injecting the room with colour and texture. It’s a lovely backdrop to the portraits suspended around the platform that holds the women, images  of men throughout the history of colonization. Johnston’s world is cohesive and functional, as aesthetically pleasing as it is usable for the folks onstage — it’s a total feat of scenographic imagination.

All in, though on the long side, Women of the Fur Trade is an amusing, informative play, and the Native Earth run is sold out for good reason. Koncan’s script and Loring’s direction are a perfect match, and the warm, parodistic humour of the play is the perfect antidote to these final biting days of Toronto winter.

Women of the Fur Trade runs at Native Earth Performing Arts until April 21. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

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.



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