It’s unlikely Stan Rogers’ long-loved 1981 song Northwest Passage will ever again be played in my home.
The a cappella tune, belted out by the late Canadian folksinger with his male band mates singing lusty harmony, traces a trip by Rogers in which his thoughts turn to Sir John Franklin and other explorers. All is fine until Rogers hits the chorus, where he describes the north as “a land so wild and savage,” biting off the word “savage” like it’s a beast to be crushed before it crushes him.
Sorry Stan, but you missed the boat on this one, as Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, now at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, proves.
The concert/conversation between the north and south is performed by Toronto queer theatre maker Evalyn Parry and Iqaluit-based artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. Rich, provocative, seeking resolution but suspecting it’s beyond our grasp, the show explores colonization, sexuality, climate change, female resilience, cultural decimation, abiding friendship and more through the lens of the north.
Were it not so tightly structured by creators Parry, Bathory, Erin Brubacher, Elysha Poirier and Cris Derksen, it would be a mess of unrealized ambitions.
Instead, it’s a powerhouse that stands to be the pick of GCTC’s season. It’s worth noting the production is a co-presentation with the NAC Indigenous Theatre and is also part of their first ever season.
Like Rogers’ song, the show, directed by Brubacher, is cast as a journey. “There is a compass inside of me/Pulling me forward endlessly,” sings Parry in clear, warm tones at the outset, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar as Bathory’s throat singing suggests the unknown places this compass might take us.
In fact, as Bathory and Parry explain, the show began on a journey in 2012, when the two were artists in residence aboard a climate research vessel travelling up the Davis Strait from Nunavut to Greenland. They hit it off and eventually created this production.
For Parry, that northern trip was rooted partially in the Rogers’ song, which, as she explains in the show, she had grown up with. Then, one day, she really noticed the word “savage” and realized it implied an accepted truth — one most of us doubtless share — about the north that is absent of any real understanding of the place and people. “I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like myself,” she says. That, in turn, led her to sign up for the northern expedition to learn more.
Parry weaves Rogers’ line into the show, but sings the word “savage” in gentle, questioning fashion, turning Rogers’ declaration into something open-ended and self-doubting. That, in turn, gives Bathory an opening to talk about Nunavut as “the real land… our land… so full of kin…,” a land brimming with food where arrogant European explorers died of starvation. As Bathory speaks, video artist Poirier projects images of northern fish and berries on the screen behind the performers. Paradoxes? Yes. As both performers remind us more than once, the show and the north-south relationship are built on the tension of paradox.
The journey continues with conversation about gender identity, a rapid-fire history of past and present-day colonial ravaging of the north, a reminder about Greenpeace’s blundering into the seal hunt, points of positive connection between north and south, and so much more.
Metaphor, music, projections, anger, humour: They urge the two-hour show forward as the north, seemingly changeless and implacable to southern eyes even as permafrost melts and lives begin and end, sweeps up the audience. “The ice is alive,” says Bathory at one point as Derksen’s cello creaks and groans.
Then there’s Bathory’s extraordinary mask dance. It arrives toward the end of the show. Saying too much would be a spoiler, but audiences are given a heads-up about it at the beginning. Let’s just say it’s frightening, erotic, vulnerable, affirming and rooted, quite literally, in trust between performer and audience. You’ll never see its like again nor will you stop thinking anytime soon about its implications for all of us.
I never met Stan Rogers, but his writing had always seemed alert to truths other than his own. Odds are good that, were he to see Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, he’d have to do something about Northwest Passage.
Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is a Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (Toronto) production. It’s co-presented by GCTC and NAC Indigenous Theatre. The show was reviewed Thursday and runs until Feb. 9. Tickets: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196, gctc.ca