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undercurrents: Moonlodge revives an Aboriginal Canadian classic

By Barbara Popel on February 16, 2016

Photo from the undercurrents website.

Photo from the undercurrents website.

Moonlodge – part of the undercurrents festival of new plays – is a reworking of an Aboriginal Canadian classic by playwright Margo Kane. As part of the festival, it was workshopped at the NAC Fourth Stage on February 12 and 13. This is the NAC’s first participation in undercurrents; here’s hoping it’s not the last.

Moonlodge is a one-woman play that was last performed by Kane about 20 years ago. It was first performed in 1990. Kane toured it nationally and internationally to much acclaim. This production has been “revisited”; it was reworked early in February with Kane’s collaboration. An NAC representative announced that it’s still “at its beginning stages”. And for the first time, it’s being performed by someone other than Kane, namely by Paula-Jean Prudat. Prudat is a member of the NAC 2015/16 Theatre Ensemble. The director is Corey Payette, the 2014-15 artist-in-residence with the NAC English Theatre. Both have an Indigenous background, as does the production designer, Brittany Ryan.

Although a work-in-progress, there is much to recommend Moonlodge.

The first 50 minutes are affecting or humourous vignettes of young Agnes growing up. It starts with her childish frolics within a loving extended family, somewhere in Canada. Then her father is arrested, and she suffers a wrenching displacement when ripped from her family during the infamous “Babies Scoop”, when Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families, scattered and shuffled between foster families. Agnes finally finds some stability with Aunt Sophie, a big brash white woman who is her last foster parent.

Agnes swallows the “Disneyfication” of Aboriginal people: Indians were “supernatural, primal, and they always died”. Then, somehow, she graduates from high school. It’s 1967 – the Summer of Love – and she desperately wants to go to Haight-Ashbury. So she announces to Aunt Sophie that “I’m not running away – I’m hitchhiking!”. And this naive girl takes off with a suitcase and a shawl, heading southwest. She soon encounters a California biker, and things quickly get out of control. Somehow (magically?), she manages to get to Santa Fe, and is charmed by all the Indians there. She hitches a ride with a young man, Lance, who is going to a powwow. Her first powwow! She’s enthralled and thrilled. Finally – she’s found some of her roots! Even though she doesn’t know what tribe she belongs to. She meets a kind woman named Millie, who gives her coffee, fry bread, and some advice. Then Millie and the rest of the people at the pow wow get in their trucks and head home, leaving Agnes alone.

Most of these vignettes work very well. We see Agnes grow from a little girl to a confused but optimistic teenager. Prudat is convincing, both as Agnes and as the people Agnes encounters. She also has a lovely singing voice. Music is an important component of Moonlodge. Drumming and pop music are integral to the story.

But in the last 10 minutes, for me, the play goes off the rails. The play skips into the realm of magic or dreams. Agnes has a spiritual experience in an abandoned Zuni pueblo. She somehow finds Millie’s home. She goes to a moonlodge where all the Indian women she knows are, because it’s their “moon time” and they’re telling stories to each other. She has a vision of herself driving a car with an Indian man and an albatross/dove/spirit-bird. What???

There’s also an annoying technical problem which I hope will be rectified in future performances. The recorded sounds of other voices and of music often drown out Prudat’s voice, so much so that she must shout to make herself heard. And she’s not always successful in doing so.

Nevertheless, Moonlodge looks promising. I hope it evolves to regain its “Aboriginal Canadian classic” status.

For more about the undercurrents festival, see their website.