A bravura bear for our times

A one-man monologue, a song-and-dance routine, mime, performance art and, above all, storytelling, Bears has a unique charm that possibly only Sheldon Elter could realize.

This bear of a man of many talents is Floyd. Narrating his own tale in the third person, he identifies with the big grizzly bear, whose habitat in tar sands country is under threat. Floyd is accompanied by a chorus of seven fairy-like creatures – Shammy Belmore, Karina Cox, Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Zoë Glassman, Gianna Vacirca and Kendra Shorter — who illustrate Floyd’s story, their words either echoing his thoughts or making a running commentary as they make like sleeping bears, butterflies, alpine flowers or prairie gophers.

There’s a lot going on in Bears, which earned MacKenzie several awards, including a Dora for Outstanding New Play. He wrote the play to reconnect with his family’s Métis, Cree and Ojibwe heritage on the North Saskatchewan River. He might have had Elter in mind as he wrote, for Bears displays elements common to Elter’s hit show Métis Mutt. A stand-up comedian, actor and very entertaining guy, Elter took us from laughter to tears in that intense performance, as he does in Bears.

Bears runs from high seriousness to banality to profanity, often within one or two sentences.  When Floyd muses about grizzlies, referring to “frolicking in alpine meadows,” then tranquilized, then reduced to art installations of “their shellacked bear droppings,” the chorus chimes in with “like, shitloads.” Elter plays his dual role well. One minute he’s an indigenous man complaining how “the Feds cut our funding” for a project. The next he’s a would-be bear ravaging the forest floor for wild strawberries or chatting with woodland chickadees.

The humour ranges from satire to farce. (The bear’s sense of smell is so good “he can tell which squirrels are menstruating.”)  The chorus also indicates mood, an assist to the audience, for the script can be confusing. Monica Dottor’s choreography is quite challenging for young performers who don’t appear to have had much dance training, but the dainty, shape-shifting choristers can be amusing.

Would that the playwright had made more of the role of Mama, played by fine Cree actor Tracey Nepinak, last seen at the Belfry in a revival of The Rez Sisters. She is the calm centre, and she’s especially moving when speaking in Cree. But for chunks of the 80-minute show she’s on stage with nothing to do.

Bring your imagination if you’re coming to see Bears, for it’s a thoughtful play that requires careful interpretation. T. Erin Gruber helps that process, having created a minimal set of shiny, reflective shapes like mountains and clouds that dramatically re-engineer the space with some brilliant lighting.

Beyond avalanches, desecration of the environment and a tale of a golden eagle drowned in a toxic tailings pond, there’s a home truth to convey, a statement that applies to all communities: “We must stand together for justice in this world.” Mama says so.

Photo of Sheldon Elter and chorus by David Cooper

Bears

By Matthew MacKenzie

An Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre production

At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria, until February 24, 2019

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