The Edward Curtis Project is wildly ambitious
A Presentation House Theatre and PuSh International Performing Arts Festival production. At Presentation House Theatre on Friday, January 22. Continues until January 31
Controversial photographer Edward Curtis makes for a daunting subject. Just think of the magnitude of his work itself—thousands of photos taken of First Nations people from Alaska to Texas between 1899 and 1930—let alone the implications of those carefully stage-managed and often misleading pictures. He toiled to document the “vanishing Indian”, and his stereotypical portraits directly influenced Hollywood Westerns. The fact that he ended up bankrupt and divorced over his obsession adds even more shading to his life’s work.
In her surreal, poetic style, Galiano Island playwright Marie Clements mixes the complex story of Curtis with that of a contemporary First Nations woman. The results of The Edward Curtis Project are ambitious, wildly creative—and mixed.
Angie (Tamara Podemski), a Métis “foreign correspondent in her own country”, is having a breakdown over a tragedy she’s witnessed in Inuit territory. This leads to conflicts with her conservative, assimilated sister (tone-perfectly uptight Kathleen Duborg) and her First Nations live-in boyfriend (a wry Kevin Loring), as well as several hallucinatory rendezvous with Curtis himself (the charismatic Stephen E. Miller). Curtis documented the vanishing Indian, and Angie longs to make herself vanish. The impressionistic mix also includes flashbacks to Curtis’s own strained marriage, his travelling lectures, and conversations with some of his subjects.
The production team, headed by codirectors Clements and Brenda Leadlay, takes a fittingly visual approach to storytelling: transparent screens that surround the spiralling circular stage are brought to life with production designer Tim Matheson’s projections of photos. In one of many inventive moments, Angie magically scrawls Curtis-like captions under snapshots of her family on the screens, writing “Dr. Clara Curtis, daughter of mixed marriage, rather white looking” by her sister’s portrait.
Clements creates some lyrical phrases: Angie longs to “get out of the picture that I had made of myself”. But The Edward Curtis Project has difficulty containing its concepts and conflict. The play begins in such intensity—the traumatized Angie is a seething mass of yelling, shaking, and clenching—that it leaves little to build up to. There’s a lot of hollering between Angie and her sibling, her long-suffering hubby, and Curtis himself. By the end, the messages get muddled amid all the images and anguish.
Outside the theatre, in the adjoining lobby-gallery of the North Vancouver Museum, the integral second half of The Edward Curtis Project is comparatively clear. Clements and acclaimed Canadian photojournalist Rita Leistner travelled Curtis’s path, visiting First Nations people from the southern U.S. to the Far North, and the resulting photo exhibit is a stunning record that includes diptychs of young people in contemporary hip-hop wear next to shots of them sporting regal traditional dress. Ultimately, Curtis’s loaded images are best answered with new ones that defy his predictions that a people would disappear. In this case, pictures speak louder than words.