THE KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT
by Sharon Pollock.
Directed by Keira Loughran.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 24, 2017
THE BREATHING HOLE
by Colleen Murphy.
Directed by Reneltta Arluk.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 22, 2017
Sharon Pollock’s The Komagata Maru Incident is based on an egregious racial incident in 1914, when a Japanese freighter carrying 376 Sikh immigrants from India was not allowed to dock in Vancouver by government officials because they came from the Third World and were not of acceptable colour, religion, language, and way of life. After a seven-week standoff, the ship returned to India, leaving behind only 20 passengers who proved that they had former residence in Canada. Pollock’s nobly intentioned original was set (inexplicably and sensationally) in a brothel, with an incongruous circus atmosphere created by a Master of Ceremonies dressed as ring-master. The playwright used documentary facts but sought to create a theatrical impression, using dramatic license and compressing time and place.
Director Keira Loughran has tried to make something new of the play, but has lost her way both in history and in theatre. The background story of Gurdit Singh Sarhali, the Sikh who devised a way of testing Britain and Canada’s immigration policy, is left shadowy, and by incorporating Chinese and First Nation characters in a bid to enlarge the issue of Canadian racism, Loughran has made the play diffuse and fuzzy in focus. Audiences are somewhat compensated by a free brochure that fills in historical details, but Pollock’s play (that certainly has historical significance) and Loughran’s treatment create problems. Quelemia Sparrow is an attractive lady who is beautiful both in her indigenous garb (at the outset) and in her circus jacket, top-hat, and boots, but her movement and dance choreography is rather insipid and her vocal performance low energy. Instead, it is left to Jasmine Chen and Diana Tso (as two Chinese ladies of unsavoury suggestion), Tyrone Savage (as Georg, the German-born ally of Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson), and Hopkinson himself (Omar Alex Khan) to provide dramatic and comic sparks, though the most enchanting performance is that of Kiran Ahluwalia as the unnamed Woman who is the only visible East Indian passenger. Pollock has admitted to not having represented any male Sikhs because of her lack of knowledge or direct experience with one at the time of the play’s creation.
Ahluwalia is a beautiful singer with dulcet tones that modulate to fine melancholy, and her economy of gesture have real allure, but she is forced to narrate what the playwright has neglected to dramatize. Moreover, the production seems to be unaware of its own self-sabotage. By having a First Nations woman serve as Emcee, the production turns one historical victim into an ally of the racists. And why is the English translation of the Sikh woman’s songs made to sound like pidgin English? Presumably the Sikh poets and balladeers knew how to form complete sentences in their own language, and this English translation is reprehensibly condescending, patronizing, and false. Moreover, did no one attempt to correct the misimpression that Sikhs are Hindus—a fallacy that is voiced in the script?
Where The Komagata Maru Incident loses dramatic impact and focus because of its flawed attempt to heighten cultural resonance of absent characters, Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole manages to keep its course and gain power despite spanning centuries and having a puppet-polar bear as its main character. Angu’juaq is first seen as a mewling, abandoned cub saved from death by an old Inuit woman, Hummituq (Jani Lauzon), herself starving and abandoned by her family, but a visionary who looks into the black water of the breathing hole to see into the future, predicting eventually the arrival of the Erebus and Franklin’s expedition and a new concept of time. When first discovered, the bear is a clever hand puppet that is utterly charming, though restricted in its movements. However, as it grows into an adult (masterfully created with wood and cloth by an Inuit team, and controlled by Bruce Hunter), it rivals anything seen years earlier in War Horse. As it hunts seals at a breathing hole, ruthlessly hooking its powerful jaws onto its victim and raising it out of the water, it seems massively dangerous, and yet it has vulnerability, even delicacy, as it is subject to human whims and foibles. Indeed, just as a mask can often overtake an actor, this puppet appears to become almost human in its “feelings,” and because the main thrust of the play is a tragic history of human greed, wastefulness, and ruin, the figure and role of this bear is enlarged to symbolic proportions.
The play spans a vast stretch of Arctic history, beginning with a sort of exotically romanticized primitivism in 1534 as the old woman, in contrast to the others in her small community who feel full and satisfied from their hunt, howls with unhappiness. No wonder she takes ardently to the cub, caring for it as one of her own children. Later, the actress appears inside a second (adult) bear, Angu’juaq’s mate, and as the centuries pass, carrying us into the fatal end of the Franklin expedition of 1847, the didactic thrust of the play grows stronger. This section has earned critical disapproval in some quarters because of its highly charged satire aimed at the British explorers and scientists who find themselves ravaged by nature and left to die from starvation and cold. But this section is filled with interesting character sketches by the likes of Randy Hughson, amusingly eccentric yet dignified in his own right; Thomas Mitchell Barnet, Jamie Mac, and Victor Ertmanis as various crew members; and Juan Chioran as an interpreter who eventually goes mad.
The final section (set in future decades of the 21st century) takes us into the whole issue of environmental destruction by Western capitalists, but the playwright eschews being laboriously didactic by comedy of manners and a satire of technologies. Several of the actors who played natives in the initial sequences turn into despicably careless, heartless “whites,” living it up on luxurious Northwest Passage cruise-liners that litter the ocean with their garbage and pollute the world with their rampant consumerism. This is where Angu’juaq’s story reaches its tragic climax, and the final scene with the bear gasping helplessly as it drowns in an oil-slick ocean crystallizes the conflict between cultures, and that between human brutality and nature’s integrity.
The Breathing Hole has a beautiful soul that transcends its intrinsic flaws—such as the urge to romanticize and sentimentalize the indigenous, or the undeniable necessity of suspending our disbelief at the bear’s existence in a huge time span. It has been given an utterly appealing non-naturalistic scenic design (Daniela Masellis), excellent costumes (Joanna Yu), extraordinary puppets, lighting of ineffable Borealis effect (Itai Erdal), and signature sound composition (Carmen Braden). The interplay between Inuit actors and some of Stratford’s best company members (under the direction of Reneltta Arluk, who has had extensive experience with Indigenous communities across Canada) is heartening and moving. This is a landmark collaboration between the Stratford Festival and Inuit artists that should become a continuing relationship, for in this our 150th year as a nation, it is time for our Inuit artists to tell their own stories in their own voices.