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.