Theatre review: Reservations

I first heard of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in Deirdre Dore’s short story “The Wise Baby.” Themes in the story revolved around Heidegger’s writing, which I understand very little. I’ll get to learning more one day.

Well, that day was not Tuesday, when I saw Steven Ratzlaff’s play Reservations, presented by Theatre Projects Manitoba. It was two stories in one — Pete’s Reserve in the first hour and Standing Reserve, which mentions Heidegger, in the second.

Both stories were connected by indigenous issues: land entitlement and Child and Family Services (CFS).

In Pete’s Reserve, Mennonite farmer Pete (played by playwright Steven Ratzlaff) wants to give his land, worth millions, to the Siksika Nation in Alberta. This is against his daughter Anna’s (Sarah Constible) will.

He says he must give the land back to those who originally lived there, she says sell the land because it’s worth too much, and as an actor, she says she could use the money.

Pete’s second wife Esther (Tracey Nepinak, who I think had the strongest performance in both stories), a Cree woman, didn’t really choose a side. When talking with Pete, she backed up Anna. When talking with Anna, she backed up Pete.

The conclusion of Pete’s Reserve is that there is no conclusion.

In Standing Reserve, Jenny (played by Constible) fights to keep her foster children. Her husband Mike (Ratzlaff) isn’t as devoted to the issue as Jenny. Nepinak plays Denise,  a worker for the aboriginal CFS agency responsible for Jenny and Mike’s children.

Jenny says she and her husband are providing the care their children need, while Denise says the children need to keep a connection to their home reserve.

In the middle of Standing Reserve, which turns into the end, Denise gives a lecture at the University of Manitoba about Heidegger and traditional Cree teachings.

I think.

Though it brought me back to my days in the Armes Lecture Building at the University of Manitoba, the lecture got boring fast. At first I thought it was a good way to get a lot of information across, but then it kept going on and on and on.

And, similar to university lectures, when I’m being spoken at, not with, I don’t retain much. Yes, Heidegger was the focus of the lecture, but that’s all I can tell you about it. Oh, “standing reserve” was a term that often came up too. Maybe I missed it, or just don’t understand, but I can’t easily explain to you what a standing reserve is — though I know it’s important to the story seeing as that’s its title.

I was watching out for a direct connection between the two stories, besides the actors, indigenous themes, and unnecessary and not funny jokes, but there wasn’t an obvious one.

In the lecture, Denise did mention the loss of land and water to hydropower and restitution of land, so there’s a connection to Pete’s Reserve. And a handout from the play says Pete’s Reserve is about “the philosophical and spiritual decision of a Mennonite farmer who gifts his land to the Siksika Nation,” so there’s a connection to Standing Reserve.

But that’s it.

Yes, they were two different stories, but I would have liked to see more of a connection.

I saw a play at the Gas Station Arts Centre a few years ago about a couple and their failed relationship. (I cannot remember the name of the play, but let me know if you by chance know.) It was a two-person show, where one person acted through their relationship from the start and showed it falling apart, and the other person started at the end of the relationship, moving back to when times were happy.

It was basically two different plays, told at the same time, that were connected. More of a connection between Pete’s Reserve and Standing Reserve would have helped emphasize the message of each play.

At the end of the play, there was a talkback session where audience members could ask people involved in the production about the play (or not ask questions and just say their thoughts, apparently). Ratzlaff, who didn’t give answers to many questions, said having two plays in one show allowed the audience to think about the issues in each together.

But for me, there was too much information and too much to think about, when placed one after another.

I can’t even say I learned that much from the show. I made a list of things I want to learn more about after hearing them in the play — standing reserve, devolution, the Siksika Nation — but I would have liked to take more away from the play itself.

I like learning. I like learning from plays, TV shows, books, movies, and music. I like entertainment when I learn something, anything. This may be learning facts or thoughts or something about myself.

I don’t think Reservations was strictly made for entertainment — the themes were too heavy. It was made to make you think. But all the thinking I’ve done about the play happened outside of the theatre, which I don’t think is as effective as if I did the thinking during the performance.

Maybe that was Ratzlaff’s intentions with leaving both stories open ended. Maybe he wants you to go out and talk about the issues in the play, and not the play itself. And that’s fine. But that’s what newspapers and websites and books are for. The themes in the play are so important and current, but I’m not sure if the play brought anything new to the table.

I would have liked to see a conclusion, even if the audience disagrees with the conclusion. That’s what sticks with people.

The start of the show was promising. Throat singing accompanied by strings. The music set the tone saying, “You’re about to be moved.” And so did the set — wheat blowing in a field projected on narrow screens hanging from the roof. The actors stood on stage, making fluid movements until you realized they were in a new position. That’s what the show needed more of — performance.

I’ve seen Verba Ukrainian Dance Company’s “The Holodomor Project.” The group dances and acts its way through the man-made famine in Ukraine. You’re there with the performers as they starve and try to survive. It was about showing the story, not telling, which Reservations did too much of.

Reservations is on at the Rachel Browne Theatre until March 20.


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