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Crap Puppets

Alan Hindle illustration

By Alan Hindle

Friday March 18, 2005

Indigenous Canadian Play


Long ago, in the misty Miracle Whip of time, Ms. T’s hunkered beneath Hastings Street wrapped in a beery fug and gold lamé curtains. One of many gems I saw there was Toothpaste and Cigars, written by TJ Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, starring Rinaldi and Tallulah Winkleman, about two beautiful star-cursed lovers having nineteen thousand frustrating imaginary dates, casting one-liners like drunks casting pearls over Niagara Falls. I emailed Rinaldi begging to buy a copy of the script. Rinaldi emailed back the script, gratis. One of Vancouver’s semi-unknown treasures, a slightly more charismatic Bob Newhart, I will go see him peel oranges because I know he will be entertaining. So I did, but the show itself has problems.

Indigenous Gay Canadian Play sees Rinaldi playing TJ, a hapless yet strangely successful new waiter in a posh/nightmarish restaurant staffed with homicidal cartoons eyeing their unseen employer’s bottle of magic-realism/literary-symbolist aqua vitae liquor. Outside, in the “real world”, a decapitating murderer is loose, energetically chopping heads like the Queen of Hearts on Red Bull. Peter Wilson (who co-wrote Indigenous with Terry J. Taylor) plays the tall nutcase with breasts and Rhys Lloyd is the crackpot chef displaying a disturbing flippancy with suspiciously realistic knives. The first half is frenzied nonsense plucked from the frayed edges of Lewis Carroll, Spike Milligan, Monty Python and every crap children’s puppet show your mother forced you to sit through at the local public library while she had a quiet smoke in the far corners of the reference section. The second half– I think– is a po-faced satire on the sort of earnest thea-tah that denigrates its important subject matter with condescending naiveté.

Thus, Rinaldi also plays John Jewitt, an English explorer captured and enslaved by the West Coast Nootka two and a half centuries ago, who saves another boorish shithead compatriot (Lloyd) from the King of the Nootkians (Wilson) by claiming the man is his father. Apparently the Nootka distinguished themselves from other First Nations by dressing as Betty Page in Fred Flintstone outfits.

Essentially, and as near as I can tell, the OTT first half is a riotous free-for-all of blood, madness, and the rigorous shoe-horning needed for obtaining Canadian Arts Council funding– All the worst clichés of Canadian theatre are strung out like quivering conies on the rack and poked for your delight. Bad language is shoveled liberally so you may understand this represents high-brow stuff; pompous posturing arches every tendon, rolls every tongue, ripples every eyebrow– while the second half is a ponderous melodrama played out against the crass references made to it in the first half. Unfortunately the comedy tries too hard to also be multi-layered, and the drama attempts over-subtly to pull off some variety of Andy Kaufmanesque meta-spoof.

The excessively earnest, seemingly joke-free second half portraying the noble savage slighted by countless noble savage archetypes but played by a white guy in a cheap wig makes me think something is afoot here, though little is given up as a reference point. Such purity of purpose, if it’s really there, does make for better art but weaker theatre. One Big Admission: I went expecting Rinaldi-style snappy patter and downbeat genius. I got– maybe– something subversive. Too subversive for my poor brain that night.

The performances, including those cast against actors’ strengths, are fine. Rinaldi again shows his star quality though his “serious” acting is not as confident as his comedic. Wilson, despite a terrier on his head and a bouvier slung over his shoulder, eventually does come across as actually believing he is the King of the Nootkas, managing to salvage some dignity for his king. Rhys Lloyd, however, as a series of monstrous jerks, is the most successful at being both funny and believably horrible across three centuries. All the problems with Indigenous Gay Canadian lie in the writing, bringing it in line with so much other Canadian theatre.