Bears is the type of show I’ve never seen in a theatre before. Despite having read all I could about the show before seeing it, the show surprised me right from the opening scenes.
Bears is a multi-disciplinary show about Floyd (Sheldon Elter), an oilfield worker and suspect in a workplace accident, who is fleeing towards the West coast following the proposed path of the Northern Gateway pipeline. At some point in the wilderness, the sustenance for his body and soul that nature is providing him transforms him into his favourite animal: a grizzly bear. Whether that transformation is metaphorical or real, I’ll leave it to you to decide.
At once a love story about Canada and a condemnation of what we’re doing to its people and natural beauty, Matthew MacKenzie’s script is a swift (75 minute run-time), direct and fiery denunciation of the tar sands, pipelines, and oil industry in general through an aboriginal lens. No matter how many stories you’ve read in about the tar sands and the effects they’re having on nature and First Nations people, never mind the effects that will be felt in other areas if the proposed Northern Gateway or Keystone pipelines are approved, Bears humanizes those effects through Floyd and his description of what he sees, feels, and experiences throughout his mad dash to the west coast.
The show is a blend of various approaches to story-telling: musical, movement, and text-based theatre. This blending of story-telling styles was initially a little overwhelming for me. As an audience member, I’m used to being told a story in a consistent way within one art form. But, once you sit back and accept that the show is going to feature a two minute song, then we’re going to listen to Sheldon Elter (as Floyd) perform this beautiful, complexly worded dialogue and partway through it, the chorus is going to start moving across the stage in a way that’s reminiscent of salmon swimming in the river, and maybe there’ll be some projections too, and it’s all going to work together beautifully. The intersection of these different forms of media and story-telling affect the audience in a way that a solely text-based performance may not.
As the person who commands most of our attention throughout the show, Sheldon Elter was fantastic. If you’ve seen him in previous works around town, you know not to expect anything different, but it was nice to see him in a starring role. Bears demanded a lot from Sheldon – the dialogue, as mentioned, was intrinsic and complex and Sheldon delivered a near-constant, almost train-of-thought, monologue eloquently and effortlessly, but with the dialect of someone who, consciously or not, has a tendency to drop the “g” from the end of verbs ending in “ing’. This dialect evoked the idea of a boy who maybe didn’t graduate high school, instead tempted by the fortunes that are there for the taking by working in the tar sands. I also really liked Sheldon’s easy ability to slip back and forth between a grizzly/man and a child when Floyd was relating flashbacks to his childhood adventures with his kookum. Sheldon’s transformation from a passionate, desperate man on the run to someone full of innocence and youthful enthusiasm provided a bit of relief from the lightening-fast, vicious monologue.
The decision to have a chorus that would play the part of various animals and plants as well as the scenery Floyd was traveling through was brilliant. Throughout the play, the five members of the chorus – Anastasia Maywood, Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posyniak, Kate Stashko, and Aimee Rushton – used their bodies and movement to portray everything from mountains, to fish, to butterflies. People’s intrinsic appreciation of nature is something that can’t be put into words, but, by adding movement and choreography to Bears, it creates a second layer to the piece’s theme of respecting the environment that you don’t have to understand with your rational, logical brain – you can understand it with your body and with simply taking in the beauty of the movements and forms.
With regard to the music component of Bears, the piano-based songs written and performed by Bryce Kulak hearkened back to music from the pioneer days of Canada, evoking thought of the similarities or contrast between exploration then and now: both were in search of resources, both destroyed natural resources, and both had a devastating effect on First Nations people. Bryce’s lyrics were also subtly witty and set the tone for the next section of the performance. On the other hand, similar to the movement work being something that the audience can understand with their body as opposed to their rational brain, the electronic music, designed by Dean Musani (AKA DJ Phatcat), was rhythm-based, blended in the sounds of nature – chickadees, crickets, or other sounds of nature – and worked its way into people’s bodies. Whether audience members were bobbing their heads, tapping their toes or just feeling their heartbeats align with the rhythm, it was another less-rational way to experience that connection with nature within the confines of a theatre in the centre of the city.
All of the elements above combined to bring alive a story that was rooted in a First Nations person’s ancestral and personal roots in northern Alberta and BC and told in a way that anyone could relate to. The seamlessly integrated multi-disciplinary performance meant that if you weren’t really connecting with one type of art form, there was always another access point available for you to understand the story.
The only aspect of Bears didn’t like, although I understand why it was done, was the layout of the theatre. The set consisted of three large mountains, with a reflection of them on the floor outlined in orange electrical tape. The risers then mirrored this V-shaped reflection, but were positioned very close to the playing space and the set. For me, with a western Canadian concept of personal space (i.e. I need a large amount of personal space to be comfortable), it made me a bit uncomfortable. I felt like I couldn’t see the whole playing space and that if I turned my head to watch, I would be invading my neighbour’s personal space. While the layout of the space and me being uncomfortable did make me reflect on what it means for us to be destroying more and more natural habitat, I still felt as though I was missing pieces of the play because of the level of physical discomfort I was experiencing.
PS – Hear from Matthew MacKenzie and Sheldon Elter on the What it is Podcast’s episode 63: Bears, Laws & Dogs, Oh My!
*One final note: Obviously, I very much liked Bears, but have to admit that two audience members talking throughout the show distracted me at times. This review is diminished by what I missed by being unable to be totally absorbed in the show.