Perhaps it is because I have been lucky enough to have visited the magical Haida Gwaii on a number of occasions, or maybe it was my years living on British Columbia’s north coast or maybe it is my own familial connection to a First Nations Princess and her family. But whatever the underlying reason, I was touched to my very core yesterday as I watched the Vancouver Playhouse production of Beyond Eden.
Based on the real-life expedition in 1957 to remove totems from the Haida village of Ninstints, one thing is for certain, no matter which side of the controversial expedition you take (was it a rescue or was it theft?), this is an absolutely gorgeous, but ultimately respectful, re-counting of the Wilson Duff and Bill Reid journey.
John Mann returns to the Playhouse stage here as Lewis Wilson (representing Duff from the expedition) and makes easy work of Bruce Ruddell and Bill Henderson’s mixture of rock and folk music. Tom Jackson as The Watchman, representing the ghosts of Haida elders, wields immense power with his booming voice, ultimately helping Lewis to discover his own truth about what he has set out to do and so passionately believes is right.
Cameron MacDuffee as the “half breed” Max Tomson (representing Bill Reid), is perhaps the one character that is most profoundly affected by the expedition. In this sub-plot, with other-worldly undertones, MacDuffee finds himself torn between two worlds. As he ultimately embraces his First Nations heritage, realizing he can live in both, his joy and acceptance is felt to the back rows of the theatre.
Sensitively mixed with the Ruddell and Henderson rock score are traditionally inspired Haida music by Gwaai Edenshaw. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the Haida music, including some incredibly beautiful chanting and drumming from Erika Raelene Stocker, was at times mesmerizing, helping to underscore the blurring lines of two worlds.
Set and costume designer Bretta Gerecke reinforces her status as a visionary and master of her craft (Gerecke is also responsible for the gorgeous design of Nevermore currently playing on Granville Island). I cannot remember the last time I heard applause for a set design, but as the curtain raised on act two, the entire audience was transported to the ethereal beauty of Haida Gwaii and we shared in the awe that the expedition members must have felt upon arriving on its shores for the first time. Indeed tears welled up in my realization that Gerecke had so captured the essence of this wonderous place. Later, as the totems are cut down from their precarious perches amongst the trees of the ancient village, I found tears once again running down my cheeks.
Gerecke has worked here in perfect harmony with the lighting design of Alan Brodie and Kevin Lamotte and the breathtaking projections created by Jamie Nesbitt. Choreographer Jacques Lemay balances perfectly between the rock and traditional, as does Gerecke’s costumes.
That this production languished for some twenty years before finally making its way onto the Playhouse stage is testament to playwright Bruce Ruddell’s firm belief in the subject matter and that the story deserved to be told.
As the expedition arrives in Ninstints for the first time at the top of act two, Sal turns to her husband Lewis and utters the most beautiful and truthful line in the show as she realizes the enormity, beauty and significance of where they are and what they are about to do.
To playwright Ruddell, with immense gratitude I say the same thing: thank you for bringing me to his place.
Vancouver Playhouse, Hamilton & Dunsmuir
16 January – 6 February 2010
The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company presents the world premier of the musical spectacle Beyond Eden starring Spirit of the West’s John Mann. Based on the 1957 expedition by Wilson Duff and Bill Reid to Haida Gwaii to remove the last remaining ancient totem poles from the deserted Haida village of Ninstints, Beyond Eden is a story of struggle, love, loss, redemption and transformation all triggered by the harsh clash of European cultures and the ancient arts and culture of the Haida Nation. Tickets are $20 – $56 available by calling the Playhouse box office at 604 873 3311 or online at http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com.