July 8, 2020

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Character's stories provide illumination in Ian Ross's new dramedy

Agatu (Tracey Nepinak, left) and Head Full of Lice (Kathleen MacLean) have to figure out the world they live in. (Leif Norman)

Agatu (Tracey Nepinak, left) and Head Full of Lice (Kathleen MacLean) have to figure out the world they live in. (Leif Norman)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/10/2019 (278 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Described in the press release as an "absurdist dramedy," playwright Ian Ross's new play The Third Colour is first and foremost a work extolling the importance of traditional storytelling among Indigenous peoples as a way of understanding the world.

How curious then that it resembles an episode of The Twilight Zone, even without the presence of a Rod Serling-like host intoning: "Submitted for your approval... "

Their world is a blank, dark space, except for a teepee structure with a vertical schism along its centre, mirroring the friction between the characters Head Full of Lice (Kathleen MacLean, left) and Agatu (Tracey Nepinak). (Leif Norman)

Their world is a blank, dark space, except for a teepee structure with a vertical schism along its centre, mirroring the friction between the characters Head Full of Lice (Kathleen MacLean, left) and Agatu (Tracey Nepinak). (Leif Norman)

It begins in darkness. A couple of women seem to pop into existence, or rather, consciousness. "I'm an old lady," exclaims Agatu (Tracey Nepinak) in surprise. The younger woman awakens to an itchy scalp, soon to be explained by her name: Head Full of Lice (Kathleen MacLean). She is young, and, it transpires, angry.

Their world is a blank, dark space, except for a teepee structure with a vertical schism along its centre that will mirror the friction between the characters. Looming over the top is an otherworldly window from which these two women occasionally hear sounds... suggestive of a party to which they have not been invited. (The dramatic set design by multi-disciplinary artist Andrew Moro manages to be simultaneously elemental in its simplicity, yet sci-fi-otherworldy in its effect.)

Occasional flashes of light from above alternately suggest a benign Mother Earth or a hostile alien mothership.

Agatu and Head Full of Lice set themselves the task of figuring out their world, and that process encompasses fights, comedy and stories. Agatu is a font of stories, each one inspired by an item excavated from the earth: a toy ship, a pine needle, a doll, a hand, a nest.

Afraid of the dark, Head Full of Lice asks Agatu for a light. And ultimately, Agatu's stories do provide illumination that takes the characters from generalized awareness of their situation to the hard specifics of contemporary colonization conflict. (A clue is in the title, which calls out the absence of a symbolic Indigenous presence in the Canadian flag, which cites only white for the nation's French founders and red for the English.)

The characters create a potent dynamic. Ross is not so pedantic to have one character play "truth" and another "reconciliation," but in a way, that's how it pans out as Agatu tries to temper her friend's rage in the face of real prejudice and injustice.

Director Thomas Morgan Jones deftly juggles the play's disparate elements — humour, tragedy and allegory — with a steady hand. Mostly, he knows to give space to Nepinak, an actress who unfailingly projects a formidable charisma. Hers is a terrific performance encompassing a gift for physical comedy, but also an entrancing way with storytelling. Agatu frequently announces her intention to "tell a story" and it's invariably a gift.

MacLean's Head Full of Lice character is more prickly, befitting her name, but she too impresses with a fierce and spirited performance.

Rod Serling's absence notwithstanding, we approve.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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