Reviews: The Land Acknowledgement and Anahita's Republic
A second look at Cliff Cardinal's groundbreaking monologue, plus a bold new play set in Iran, the Jon Kaplan Legacy Fund Awards deadline and a Cirque du Soleil show ticket giveaway
✅THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, OR AS YOU LIKE IT written and performed by Cliff Cardinal (David Mirvish/Crow's Theatre). Runs to April 2 (UPDATE: returns May 4 to 7) at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge). $39-$79. mirvish.com. Rating: ✭✭✭✭
When Cliff Cardinal premiered the first iteration of this show in the fall of 2021 at Crow's Theatre, it had a different title: As You Like It, or more specifically William Shakespeare's As You Like It. Supplied production photos showed Cardinal in modern dress with an Elizabethan neck ruffle in front of a red curtain, his arm stretched out acknowledging the other, blurred cast members.
None of those others appeared in the actual production; neither did the Forest of Arden from the Bard's famous comedy. Instead, Cardinal – who is Lakota-Dene and was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – began the show with a land acknowledgement, something we've all become politely accustomed to in the past few years. But here's the thing: Cardinal's acknowledgement kept on going. And going. Soon the audience realized it was the entire show.
This clever bait-and-switch tactic underscored one of the show's most brutal truths: just as we had been promised something and given something else, so too the country's Indigenous people agreed to something then had their land snatched away.
Reviewers were encouraged to go along with the ruse and not ruin the surprise for future audiences. In my review, before providing a spoiler alert, I even wrote: "this As You Like It is unlike any other production of the play, past or future," which was literally true. I believe it got quoted.
Now that that gimmick has gone we can focus more on what Cardinal is saying – and doing – in the show. And there's a lot.
For one thing, he fills us in on how and why he changed the title, even landing a few playful jabs at his new presenter, Mirvish Productions ("Don't worry," he tells us, "David Mirvish isn't here") and the fact that "theatre in this country only goes so far without oil money." Ouch.
Cardinal airs frank truths about self-righteous white people delivering land acknowledgements, pointing out that they often act as though they're "the last safe house on the Underground Railroad." One of his most quotable lines comes when he describes settler theatre artists asking him what he thinks of their land acknowledgements.
"What they're really saying," he confides, "is 'Tell me I'm one of the good ones.'"
But Cardinal doesn't spare his fellow Indigenous artists' land acknowledgements, either.
What's thrilling about seeing him pace the stage of the CAA Theatre before a closed red curtain is how beautifully in control he is of the 700-seat crowd while still being open to surprise. Because of the particular layout of the theatre, there's more of a stand-up feel to the show this time around. His audience interaction is playful and challenging but never mean-spirited. Logan Cracknell's lighting design, as before, is beautifully subtle in its effects.
Cardinal can communicate lots with an arm gesture, a pause, a double-take. He literally twitches when he says the word "ally," illustrating exactly what he thinks of the people eager to identify themselves as such.
After a zinger – "Let's get back to trespassing," he says early on – he'll shoot the audience a look that is equal parts confrontation and mischief. The fact that Crow's artistic director Chris Abraham gets a credit that reads "creative co-conspirator" underlines the mischievous aspect of the show.
This time out, Cardinal has a lot more vitriol for the Catholic church – perhaps because of the Pope's half-assed recent apology for the church's role in the residential school system. He's also got a new bit about Egerton Ryerson, the architect of that same system, that hits home.
If the most wrenching material in the show concerns those thousands of unmarked graves outside the residential school, the heart and soul can be found in Cardinal's memories of two women in his life. It's in these latter stories that we get a tiny glimpse of hope.
To return to Cardinal's original title, this isn't theatre as we (traditionally) like it, but we're all the better for it.
Women's lives and freedom
ANAHITA'S REPUBLIC by Hengameh E. Rice (Bustle & Beast). Runs to April 2 at the Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). $20-$50, Sunday pay-what-you-can. factorytheatre.ca. Rating: ✭✭✭
One of the benefits of live theatre is that it can respond to current political events more quickly than narrative film and TV. That certainly seems to be the case with Anahita's Republic, an ambitious, if underwritten play about the enormous limitations on women's freedom in modern Iran.
The subject matter is so sensitive and timely, in fact, that the play's co-writers – one born in Shiraz, Iran, the other in Edmonton – have decided to use a pseudonym, Hengameh E. Rice, to protect their identities out of fear of reprisal.
It's 2009, and the confident, stylish Anahita (Sama Mousavi) lives as she pleases in her fortress of a home overlooking Tehran. She runs the family business, and controls her brother Cyrus (Fuad Ahmed), whose position as a member of parliament ensures they have lots of under-the-table access to whatever they need.
The night before a secret meeting of Iran's women's movement, however, the pair are visited by a young woman named Omid (Mahsa Ershafidar), the daughter of Masood, the smuggler they normally do business with. Omid, clad in traditional chador, tells them her father is ill. But is this all a trap? When Masood himself (Omar Alex Khan) shows up, the plot, as they say, thickens.
Rice's decision to structure the play as a thriller adds some excitement, and certainly raises the stakes for all four people. But I wish there were more details in the characters' backgrounds. A significant childhood memory between Anahita and Cyrus, perhaps?
We get glimpses of a brave fallen woman who had links to all four characters, but there could be more. It's telling that despite the Iranian setting, the most vivid scene involves something that happened in Cambridge, England in a bitter episode recounted poignantly by Anahita.
Director Brenley Charkow gets solid work from all four actors. Khan delivers a suitably cagey performance; Ahmed creates a moving portrait of a man with divided loyalties; and Ershafidar, so alive and passionate in her small role in last year's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, is fascinating to watch in the most mysterious role.
Mousavi's portrayal of Anahita shows us her strength and ambition – and hints at what she may have sacrificed for her freedom to live in this repressive society. But the actor can't quite sell the big emotions in the final scene.
The design elements – particularly Sim Suzer's set and Siobhan Sleath's lighting – help this unusual republic come to life, but the production might have worked better in the round so we could have different angles on the characters' goings-on. As it is now, some scenes feel more distant than they should.
Ironically, Bustle & Beast, the company producing the show, has encountered problems advertising the show on Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta. "The subject matter of the play, Women's Rights, was deemed too controversial," said Charkow in a release sent out a few days after the play's opening.
"As creators, we accept that not everyone will agree with or like the worlds we create and that there is a lot of fear about the perceived dangers of contentious issues, but we live in Canada, and many Iranians came to Canada to be free to share our stories. If we can't talk about systemic injustice here if the organizations like Meta who make their profits from us serve to limit free speech as well, are we simply trading one type of dictatorship for another?"
Indeed. Especially now during the global Woman, Life, Freedom protests and activism, Anahita's Republic's themes of personal and political freedom feel more urgent, and necessary, than ever.
Jon Kaplan Legacy Fund Awards deadline this week
Do you know a talented Canadian stage performer? Are you yourself a young Canadian playwright? Nominations for the Jon Kaplan Legacy Fund Awards close this Friday (March 31) at midnight (ET).
Named after the late Jon Kaplan, the beloved theatre writer and my friend and colleague at NOW Magazine (the old one), the awards, established in 2018, are now for $5,000 each.
The Canadian Stage Performer award, to be nominated by an established Canadian theatre maker, is for theatre performers with at least five years of industry experience with or without formal training. The award will provide a boost in recognition/acknowledgement towards furthering the successful candidate's career, as well as providing some financial support.
The Young Canadian Playwright award, which can be self-nominated, is open to writers aged 20 to 30 (as of January 1, 2023) who write plays and/or books for musicals. Candidates should have one or two works produced by a professional company, work that has been part of a curated theatre festival or more than two works presented at a non-curated theatre festival.
Past recipients include Virgilia Griffith, Justin Miller, Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho), athena kaitlin trinh and Jasmine Chen.
The recipients will be presented with their awards at a reception on Wednesday, May 17, Jon's birthday.
You can find information and applications at jonkaplanfund.com
So Sumi is giving away a pair of tickets to KOOZA, courtesy of Cirque du Soleil. The spectacle runs under the Big Top from April 7 to June 18 at its new west end location at 2150 Lake Shore Blvd West (site of the old Mr. Christie factory). Tickets are now on sale here.
What is the title of the act depicted in the picture below? Send answers to SoSumiContact@gmail.com, with KOOZA Contest as the subject heading. Deadline for entries is Monday (March 27) at 5 pm. One winner will be chosen at random. Note: to win, you must be subscribed to So Sumi (if you're not a subscriber, click on the "Subscribe" button on this page).
UPDATE: Congratulations to Ann J for correctly identifying the above act as the Wheel of Death. Ann wins a pair of tickets to the upcoming run of Cirque du Soleil's KOOZA, which runs April 7 to June 18.