Beyond Eden sells its humans short

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      By Bruce Ruddell. Music by Ruddell and Bill Henderson. Directed by Dennis Garnhum. Copresented by the Vancouver Playhouse, the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad, and Theatre Calgary at the Playhouse on January 21. Continues until February 6

      Beyond Eden makes magic with the spirits, but sells its humans short.

      Bruce Ruddell’s musical is a fictionalized account of an expedition made by anthropologist Wilson Duff and then-broadcaster Bill Reid in 1957 to “rescue” decaying totem poles from the deserted Haida village of Ninstints. Duff and Reid’s fictional counterparts are Lewis (John Mann), whose thirst to understand the history of the Haida people is the engine of the play, and Max (Cameron Macduffee), who struggles to come to terms with his mixed heritage.

      Few singers can match Mann’s passion, and it’s in Lewis’s songs that we come the closest to understanding him. But throughout the first act, his goal remains an abstraction, and even the presence of his wife, Sal (Jennifer Lines), and son, Jack (Andrew Kushnir), does little to illuminate his personality. Lines and Kushnir offer some standout songs, but their characters are 1950s stereotypes (self-sacrificing wife and rock ’n’ roll–obsessed teenager), and they’re saddled with clunky, overly expository dialogue. “The last time I felt this way was when you were invited to sleep on grave sites,” says Sal. “You did it and it changed you.” And the play’s central conflict—is removing the poles an act of preservation or of desecration?—doesn’t emerge with any clarity until late in the second act.

      In Lewis’s encounters with the spirit world, director Dennis Garnhum creates breathtaking spectacle. A chorus of spirits wearing traditional Haida cloaks and hats dramatizes scenes of contact, both friendly (a fleet of tiny canoe lanterns floats down from the back of the house and surrounds Lewis) and horrifying (festering smallpox sores obliterate everything onstage). Jamie Nesbitt’s projections create spellbinding effects on Bretta Gerecke’s superb set and costumes. And Tom Jackson gives a commanding portrayal of the Watchman, a spokesperson for the spirits who teases Lewis with riddles.

      Max’s encounters with the spirit world are simpler, but no less moving. Gwaai Edenshaw’s gorgeous, traditionally inspired songs are sung by Erika Raelene Stocker as she crosses the stage, beating a drum—an invitation to Max to rediscover his roots. Ruddell and Bill Henderson’s pop-inflected songs, especially the lush title tune, are full of energy and beauty, though the lyrics are sometimes bland.

      Beyond Eden delves into fascinating territory in our local history. If only the story were as powerful as the images.

      Comments

      16 Comments

      Walter Learning

      Jan 24, 2010 at 3:54am

      I attended the opening night of this wonderful production, I congratulate everyone who helped bring it to the stage. It is entertaining, insightful and important. Ruddell has set a new standard for contempoary musicals that deal with epic stories. I hope the folks at the National Arts Centre are ready to share Beyond Eden with the rest of Canada.

      16 9Rating: +7

      Nik Black

      Jan 24, 2010 at 11:29am

      Beyond Eden is as thin as they come. In a way, it's astonishing that it made it to the stage since its clear that it doesn't work on the page. The projections are the best aspect since they bring a sense of magic to the piece; a magic that's missing from the music, dialogue and staging. This is a "musical", so the magic of where we are should be embodied in the music. It isn't. So, we're left with a show that's almost entirely exposition and music that is soul-less and generic (in the worst sense of the word). Beyond Eden is a serious disappointment considering it cost a cool million dollars to put it up. Where's the thoughtful critical response to this work? I count on the Straight to give the straight goods, but nobody seems to want to tell the ugly truth about this show - no matter what paper they're writing for. Are you afraid of insulting First Nations or Cultural Olympiad? Or is it a matter of sweeping it under the rug and hope no one notices? Beyond Eden is a wimpy little show that, if you take away the projections, isn't much better than a high school pageant. We deserve better - especially when the budget is appropriate to the ambition and the "world's eyes are upon us."

      Bob S

      Jan 24, 2010 at 4:50pm

      This is a fair review. You should have, however, mentioned how Saturday's matinee audience was so impressed that, at the start of Act 2, they gave the set a round of applause!! Fantastic! Your review, however, helps make up for the "WOW, it's perfect!" reviews which must have been written by people who know little about Ninstints, the First Nations, or the characters involved. Yes, Beyond Eden is a good attempt, and is spectacular when you consider the visual effects, many of which will never be surpassed. However, what about making this musical more reflective of its aboriginal base? Why not weave in at least one or two songs which are traditional instead of Buffy St. Marie? The reason Eden doesn't reflect the 1st Nations point of view as much as it should is that it ignores their spirit, and divulges it in words. Isn't a play, a story, more than that? Can't it affect our emotional sides through their music, as well as their history and heritage. I did love the use of the spirits reflected by the Haida in the play. I would like to hear what others say about the aboriginal content, and how it is portrayed. In the meantime, Eden is a wonderful effort to bring together the points of view of its authors, and I applaud the Haida involvement. Let's have more!!

      kranky

      Jan 24, 2010 at 10:14pm

      Nik Black nailed it... this was a major disappointment... a show that often broke the "silly" barrier with songs with insipid lyrics (i.e. the "Halfbreed" song), ridiculous staging (i.e. a storm flinging actors about as if a photon torpedo had just hit the bridge of the USS Enterprise), and inane arguments between husband and wife that pushed the dialogue into camp. All in all, this was neither a story that enlightened us nor gave meaning to the story, which, on paper, remains alluring and mysterious. One point two million dollars and several years of work later and what remains is mostly cheesy songs and really bad story structure. I think the Straight reviewer gave us a "balanced" review to what was essentially an unbalanced show... a better fate than it deserved.

      RJB

      Jan 25, 2010 at 12:10am

      Nik Black needs to examine his brain. There was no disappointment. I was at the opening Thursday night and loved it all, Tom Jackson's performance as The Watchman was VERY powerful and John Mann's singing was as beautiful as the lyrics in the songs. Bruce Ruddell has captured this story in song and prose beautifully. It brought tears to many eyes, including mine. I watched one of the 2 Haida actors (a girl) break down and cry in the arms of another Haida friend after the performance in the upstairs gathering-- beautiful, powerful and incredibly moving. They know and the audience knew how good this play really was. Clapping at the set when it opened, clapping at every song and a standing ovation at the finish. This entire review is idiotic. Does the reviewer expect the "mystery" that defined the rest of Wilson Duff's life to be revealed in a few minutes of the first act? Go to the Calgary blog website and download the song "Beyond Eden" and listen to it, really listen to it! and think about the meaning of the two masks, a message for all of us. I've never read such garbage as this review and Nik Black's mumblings.

      KLR

      Jan 25, 2010 at 1:06pm

      I completely agree with Nik Black. Saw the show on Friday night. Cheesey! I cringed at parts. No criticism of the actors but the script is so lame I could not believe it became this huge production. I'm so surprised at the positive reviews I am reading although I must admit that most people in the audience did seem to love it. A weak weak script, for one thing it sure didn't feel like 1957. Sounded more like an episode of Oprah. I would love to read some serious criticism of this work. It's great to see BC history being tackled. I did enjoy some of the spectacle but I think my reaction to some of the images was more like relief that I wasn't having to listen to the crappy dialogue and songs.

      rids

      Jan 25, 2010 at 4:36pm

      Nik Black is a total loser. way to go georgia straight. you blew it again. its funny to see all the shows that he reviews go on to do fantastic. its time for them to get a new guy. this one has hit the skids. oh and by the way if beyond eden didnt blow your mind.....you probably dont have any mind to blow.

      @Rids

      Jan 26, 2010 at 3:45pm

      Did you even bother to look at who wrote the article? You say "all the shows he reviews" and "time for them to get a new guy. this one has hit the skids." - but the article's written by Kathleen Oliver, a different reviewer than the one you are thinking of (I'm assuming you mean Colin Thomas.)

      thumbsup

      Jan 27, 2010 at 9:47am

      I attended Opening Night of Beyond Eden and after reading these reviews I wonder if I was sitting at the same show. As a musical, who wants to focus on the sad realities the Haida and so many other first Nation's people had to face? For a production that is meant to entertain, there was just the right amount love, laughter, torment and drama. Although, I too could have done without the love songs! The riddles were engaging and the true meaning or message in the end was exactly what it should have been. As a member of the Haida Nation I appreciated the Haida involvement. This was not OUR story this was the writers' version of a story, and that is ok. That is entertainment. I would have liked to see more Haida's in the show, that is for certain, but I think the two involved did all of us proud. Erika Ralene Stocker's singing was so beautiful! and Raven Ann was just so breathtaking. There was just enough Haida language, Haida singing and Haida influence in a non-Haida production. Sometimes we expect things to be more than what they are because we want them to be and we forget to sit back and enjoy the show. Now if the Cultural Olympiad had asked Gwaai or his talented brother to write the story, a completely different story altogether would have emerged. Beyond Eden was well-done! Congrats!

      N

      Jan 28, 2010 at 12:00pm

      This is a wonderful show obviousely the people who call it cheesy or weak do not have any idea of what the show is about . I think it makes people uncomfortable . The writing is excellent as is the music the songs are beautiful !! I find it very interesting how people react with such anger over a brilliant show that has had wonderful reviews elsewhere with standing ovations every night. Find something else to do rather than hack down a show that so many people have poured energy and time into. Try and think outside the box good luck seeing theatre in the future this is the way its going !! ps Going to see ther show again looking forward to it ;)