It would be interesting to know what the lake thinks about it. But lakes don’t usually speak, unlike the two people warring over the use and meaning of fictional Otter Lake in Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers & Indians, now on at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.
It’s a classic cottager conundrum, one in which battle lines are drawn over the use of a shared resource, skirmishes are waged and a resolution never achieved. The difference in Taylor’s play, which is loosely based on real events, is that one party is an aggrieved and comfortably-off cottager from Toronto; the other is a First Nations guy who struggles to keep above the poverty line and actually lives two lakes over.
It’s a funny, sharp-tongued show about settler-First Nations relations. It delights in language, stereotypes and subversion. But it’s also flawed by its very structure.
Philippa Domville is Maureen Poole, an entitled human resources professional with a limited world view and the conviction that she is anything but racist (“I have watched Dances with Wolves,” she proclaims). She and her husband bought the cottage years ago, whiling away summers by the lake with their kids and looking forward to eventually retiring there. Sporting crocs and a pink cardigan, Maureen spends her days on the dock, sipping unoaked Chardonnay and tending the barbeque.
Unfortunately, for her, Arthur Copper (Herbie Barnes) appears on the scene. Paddling a canoe and wearing rubber boots, he’s been sowing this and other lakes with manoomin (wild rice) seeds and then harvesting the traditional food with a noisy contraption he calls Gertie. The manoomin is taking over the lake, according to Maureen, despoiling the view, making swimming and boating impossible and generally ruining her life.
You can see where this going, right?
The two are at loggerheads from the outset. Arthur — a bit of a Trickster figure with a shrewd eye (“She wears the Bermuda shorts in that family,” he notes) — pushes Maureen’s buttons left, right and centre. Maureen ping-pongs between icy resolve and rage. It’s Canada’s vast, complex history of colonialism played out dockside.
Robin Fisher’s set encapsulates the rigidly binary relationship. Stage right is Arthur’s world: The curves of his canoe, the formless shape of his work clothes, a rounded stump, an eruption of manoomin — all feel as though they’ve grown naturally from his surroundings. Above Arthur, on stage left, sits Maureen’s dock, chair and barbeque, all harsh straight lines and right angles, as constrained, considered and controlling as her casual cottage outfit.
The two squabble, debate, hurl barbs but they never set foot on the other’s territory. Maureen is always literally looking down on Arthur, her physical position underscoring her secret belief, voiced by him, that Indigenous people are as unnecessary as manoomin. Never mind that he and his ancestors are from the area: In her eyes they, like the wild rice, are invasive.
But here’s the thing.
Taylor has limited us to a kind of monocular viewpoint and, in so doing, made too obvious his own hand at work.
Even if we’ve never had a family cottage, we can understand Maureen’s protective attachment to this place. That should make us at least a little sympathetic to her position so we can see both sides of the argument. That sympathy should double when, late in the play, we learn about a sad family event.
But in Maureen, unlike the more richly drawn Arthur, Taylor gives us more of a caricature. The white wine, the put-upon self-importance of the human resources professional, the misty-eyed memories of her children at the lake: It’s all predictable.
Compare Maureen to the full-fledged character of Anya in the romp that is Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion, Taylor’s more satisfying show at the NAC a couple of seasons back, which also featured Barnes.
Taylor, of course, portrays Maureen this way deliberately. It’s a clever inversion of the colonial tendency to see Indigenous people in stereotypical terms. Think of it as appropriation turned back on the appropriator, a battle between unequals where the white person is at a distinct disadvantage because she barely is a person.
The problem is, despite solid performances by both actors, fluid direction by Richard Rose and Fisher’s enjoyably metaphoric set, Taylor’s strategy is too obvious in all this. We see what’s he doing, and why, way too frequently, and that has a distancing effect. In the end, he unintentionally subverts his own purpose.
That substantial issue aside, Cottagers & Indians is a good 85 minutes. It’s quick-witted, pointed and humorous. There’s even a tasty swipe at the now-obligatory and increasingly pro-forma acknowledgement before cultural events that we are on unceded First Nations territory.
But, like Otter Lake, the play is ultimately the victim of control.
Cottagers & Indians is a Tarragon Theatre (Toronto) production running until Dec. 15. It was reviewed Thursday. Tickets and information: 613-236-5196, gctc.ca