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The title Women of the Fur Trade likely brings to mind some dusty old historical tome, documenting what life was like for faceless women during that massive commercial enterprise — a period that spans two-and-a-half centuries, from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s.
Women of the Fur Trade
By Frances Koncan
But in the play at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, expect nothing dry or boring or reverent. Since the satiric work freely references everyone from Walt Whitman to Keanu Reeves, you may rightly assume Anishinaabe-Slovenian playwright (and Free Press reporter) Frances Koncan has fashioned something more fanciful, iconoclastic and wilfully anachronistic.
It focuses on three women living in the latter half of the 19th century. It was the era of Louis Riel, the rebel Métis leader who founded Manitoba and who died a martyr’s death, executed on the orders of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. And while Riel is a character in the play (played by John Cook), as is the doomed Protestant agitator Thomas Scott (Toby Hughes), the work puts the women front and centre as witnesses, players and commentators on the events.
The three actors are Saskatoon-raised National Theatre School graduate Kathleen MacLean (last seen here in Ian Ross’s Prairie Theatre Exchange première The Third Colour), Vancouver-based former Winnipegger and Studio 58 grad Kelsey Kanatan Wavey (who recently appeared in Theatre by the River’s The Hours That Remain) and Winnipeg-born, University of Winnipeg theatre grad Liz Whitbread.
"It’s based in historical events but it is its own universe entirely," Whitbread says. "It exists out of history and time in a really interesting way."
Whitbread is a holdover from the 2018 Toronto fringe production, where the show won an award for best new play.
"I play Cecilia, a white settler whose husband (Scott) is not a super-cool dude," she says. "She goes on a real journey in this."
MacLean describes her character, Marie-Angelique, as "a Métis woman living in the fort and who is obsessed with Louis Riel and the fight for the Métis rights."
The actor, who describes herself as Métis/settler, says "It’s been an absolute pleasure, and so exciting for me to play a Métis woman onstage."
Especially in Winnipeg.
"I can trace my roots back here to Red River," she says. "I was born and raised in Saskatoon, but this is where my lineage comes from. After the resistance (the Métis uprising in the Red River Colony in 1869-70), we went up to Meadow Lake in Saskatchewan.
"I think the place in which I intersect with Marie-Angelique is a deep sense of Métis pride," she says. "That was one of the things I didn’t realize would be so challenging in this work, just how close everything feels. The subject matter feels so close and personal to me, in a way that other work doesn’t."
Wavey, who is a Swampy Cree and a member of Tataskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, also experienced a feeling of closeness to her character, Eugenia.
"She’s an Ojibway trapper-hunter," Wavey says. "She’s pretty dope. I feel like Frances would actually be totally cool with me using that phrase to describe her.
"(Koncan’s) written about historical subject matter in a way makes it easier for everyone to connect with." – Kelsey Kanatan Wavey
"She is a self-sufficient woman who is now just dealing with the effects of colonialism in the fur trade with these other women," Wavey says, adding, "Aren’t we all?"
"We are actually very different in a lot of ways, which is really fun to play," Wavey says. "But I guess the thing that I bring to Eugenia that is very true to me is having grown up in a super-colonized world. That is the thing that holds me to this character in a big way, just dealing with the effects of colonialism.
"And I love her sass," Wavey says. "She’s really playful and I think her playfulness is something that I carry as well."
Women of the Fur Trade manages to connect figures from 150 years ago to the present day, MacLean says.
"(Koncan’s) written about historical subject matter in a way makes it easier for everyone to connect with," she says.
"Initially, I struggled when I was doing workshops on this in Toronto, because I am so well-versed in the history that I was having issues acknowledging the differences between Louis Riel, the character, and Louis Riel, the historical figure," MacLean says. "I had to release that and let that go, to understand that yes, it’s based on history, but it’s a show. She has created a character."
For her part, Wavey embraced the disparity between Riel’s history and Koncan’s fiction.
"I love that there’s these amazing contemporary elements," she says. "It actually makes everybody who sees the show grapple with these events that have taken place.
"We are still reckoning with Louis Riel’s death," Wavey says. "There are these movements that are happening, that are still going on today. This is so relevant.
"It’s grounded in history, but the playfulness and the modernness of it, it forces you to have to think about where you fit into all of this," she says.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
Updated on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 2:36 PM CST: Corrects name