“Reservations” review – ego over story

Reservations is a local play written by Steven Ratzlaff about the struggles of the Indigenous community.

It begins with a young white woman complaining about her father’s decision to give the land she thought she was getting as her inheritance to the Indigenous community it once belonged to before colonization. It then tells the story of a white woman fighting viciously to keep her Aboriginal son in her care when an Aboriginal social worker comes to take it from her, showing the mother that her adopted son never really felt like he belonged. It then ends with the Aboriginal social worker giving a speech at the University of Manitoba about the importance of Indigenous rights.

Let’s quickly run through the positives. Yes, I mean quickly.

The acting was a little shaky in the beginning of the play, a few missed queues and annunciation issues, but by the second act, it was really strong. The actors hit the notes hard exactly when they needed to and you could feel the emotion behind each word. My hat especially goes off to the two female leads, Sarah Constible and Tracey Nepinak, for carrying the play and making you pay attention to the meaning behind the words they were saying.

The sound was great for the most part. The beautiful tribal tunes playing ominously in the background helped add the punch some of the scenes deliver. At times it was unnecessary, but it wasn’t so out of place that it took you out of the play.

Unfortunately, you can’t have a great play when the writing and direction are so pretentious and in your face.

I understand what the writer and director were going for. They wanted to show multiple stories to better illustrate the point of these white people complaining about the same things the Indigenous community has been suffering from for years. The white woman is getting her land taken away, just like it was from the Indigenous. The white woman is getting her kid taken away, much like the Indigenous during the residential schools era.

If they kept illustrating that message through examples and great dialogue, it would have been fine. Instead, they begin telling you a story at the beginning that is kind of boring, but then they start dropping details about the characters lives and add colour to it, and the boom, they cut to the next story just as it’s getting interesting with no resolution.

Then the second story starts to turn preachy when the indigenous woman starts dragging on and on about Indigenous rights. Now I want to make this perfectly clear – Indigenous right are very important. But what do people tend to remember, a great lecture or a great story?

Instead of painting a beautiful picture in your mind with metaphors and great writing, it becomes just short of a woman standing a soapbox with a megaphone begging for you to pay attention to her message. It felt like it was a boring lecture, and then it actually became a boring lecture in the last thirty minutes. I’m not kidding. The last thirty minutes was a woman presenting a slideshow about Indigenous rights. People pay to see great storytelling, not to get a history lesson.

It only had three actors and limited set pieces, but that’s no excuse to poor storytelling. Take The Fly Fisher’s Companion for example. It was a Winnipeg play about two old friends that go on a fishing trip. It starts out with a lot of laughs and as the play goes on, they begin telling stories about the long life they have lived. It eventually turns into an emotional rollercoaster as these old men talk about moments they truly regretted and how life could have been so much easier if they did things differently.

The beauty of that play was the actors never once mentioned the message of the play, which was “live life to the fullest” and “You don’t to regret missing out on anything.”

Reservations was the exact opposite. I starting counting halfway through, and they actors mentioned the phrase “Aboriginal rights are important” eleven times (with slight variation). Instead of telling me they are important, show that to me with through the magic of imagery and dialogue.

Cutting about forty-five minutes of the play would have helped exponentially. I’m all for adding colour to a story to liven it up, but the little details in this play just muddied it up. For example, the first half of the play focussed on the land issue I mentioned in the introduction. Slowly throughout the story, little facts like the father never telling her about his multiple heart attacks are only interesting if they eventually lead somewhere. Instead of using these little details to enhance the story and lead up to a compelling climax, the first act ended and the second story started, leaving you to wonder what the point of it all was.

It seemed the writer was just writing extra poetic lines just to show you how good of a writer he was. He was serving his ego over the storyline and that’s just wrong.

I could have forgiven most of the issues, I really could of, but the talk back session after the play was just atrocious. The writer was asked at least seven questions and answered only one of them with actual concrete information.

I personally asked him a question about why he spent so much time building up the first story and dropping little hints of interesting plot points and character developed only to leave it unresolved. His response was “I thought it was resolved,” and then moved on to the next question. It was like answering a math question in high school and leaving it blank where it says, “show you work.” He had no defense for anything and even made me start to doubt he wrote the play in the first place. I know not all writers are the most social people, but this wasn’t anti-social behaviour, this was riddled with “I don’t care” or “I don’t have to explain myself to you” attitude.

The most important thing to take away from this review – the best stories don’t tell you the message, they illustrate it for you. Indigenous rights are very important, but this play didn’t affect me more than a Canadian history textbook would have.

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