Cowritten by Raes Calvert. Cowritten and directed by Sean Harris Oliver. Produced by Hardline Productions. At Presentation House Theatre on Thursday, March 30. Continues at Presentation House Theatre until April 9, and runs at Studio 16 from April 12 to 16
From the opening minutes of Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver’s ambitious and artful new work—an immediate sensory feast of incredible lighting and sound design, choreography, and props—it’s clear that Redpatch is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
And that includes its source material. Redpatch is inspired by a story that’s largely absent from Canadian history books: the number of indigenous men who fought in the First World War alongside mostly white Canadians.
Half-Blood (played by Calvert) has been serving in the army for three years, and he wants out. He’s tormented by personal tragedy, a trickster raven (Reneltta Arluk), racist soldiers, and the horrors of the blood on his hands from his assignment in the trenches. Half-Blood begs his friend Jonathon (Deneh'Cho Thompson) to understand why he’s eager to go home, back to the safety of his grandma (also played by Arluk), but Jonathon calls him a coward. Everything comes to a head at Vimy Ridge, which was the first time the four Canadian infantry divisions fought together. The 1917 battle, in which Canada defeated the Germans, lasted from April 9 to 12, and marks its 100th anniversary during Redpatch’s run.
Every member of the cast is indigenous, and it’s a powerful experience to read in the program bios about all of the different backgrounds and Nations represented on the stage and that have survived colonization. Every performance is strong, but two stand out. Calvert shrinks and expands to convey Half-Blood’s arduous journey with moments of exquisite subtlety and massive emotional and physical excess. A small hunch of his shoulders and a slight adjustment to his vocal patterns and he’s a little boy. Minutes later, he’s brandishing Half-Blood’s weapon, his shoulders square and his stance violent, embodying the racist stereotype of “the savage” as demanded by people like Sgt. MacGuinty (played again by Arluk).
Arluk, who is tasked with three roles that couldn’t be more different, is a revelation. As an elder and Half-Blood’s grandmother, her voice takes on warm wisdom and her physicality is that of a woman whose connection to this world is strong and sacred. As the raven, Arluk embodies the bird’s mischief with a strut, the tilt of her head, hell, even in the tone of her bird noises. As MacGuinty, she boasts a thick Scottish accent and a rigid, no-nonsense demeanour, and Arluk nails every nuance.
It’s an all-too-rare thing when a world premiere literally feels like something brand new; that more than just a story or a script, it’s an actual experience that the world hasn’t seen before. Redpatch is wholly immersive and brilliantly inventive theatre that, hopefully, heralds a new age of risk-takers and innovators on Vancouver stages.