Stratford Festival’s ‘Women of the Fur Trade’ is a side-splitting comedy that offers truths for this moment

Women of the Fur Trade

By Frances Koncan, directed by Yvette Nolan. Until July 30 at Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre, 34 George St. E. and 1800-567-1600

They drink tea … they spill the tea … and they thirst for hot dudes — namely the mustachioed Métis leader Louis Riel and his “banging beach bod” frenemy, Thomas Scott.

The time is “eighteen hundred and something-something,” but the three unlikely besties in the Stratford Festival production “Women of the Fur Trade” exist in a timeless realm. They converse with 21st-century slang, prattling on about womanhood, their Zodiac signs and Riel’s impending rebellion.

These anachronisms are like forest tinder, fanning the laughs in Anishinaabe and Slovene writer Frances Koncan’s explosive and uproarious satire. But they also form the heart of this irreverent historical comedy. For this sharp, smart and side-splitting work is also an allegorical call to reflection, encouraging us to consider our role in an ever-changing world.

Koncan’s writing intentionally shifts the focus away from the men of Canadian history to the country’s long-lost female voices. In Algonquin director Yvette Nolan’s subversively feminist production, the strong-willed women are literally under the male gaze, sitting in rocking chairs beneath portraits of famous men, a sea of which dangle from the rafters.

Of the three, it’s Métis woman Marie-Angelique (Kathleen MacLean) whose story is of central focus. She openly pines for Riel (Keith Barker) — a man whom she’s never met — much to the annoyance of her companions.

One of them is Ojibwe woman Eugenia (Joelle Peters), who couldn’t care less about Marie-Angelique’s fangirling tendencies. She’s more acquainted with the local folk hero — perhaps, you could say, intimately so — and is thoroughly unimpressed.

Then there’s their friend, the white settler Cecilia (Jenna-Lee Hyde), married to a man unsympathetic to Riel’s cause but herself unsure of where she stands on the rebellion, promising to “refrain from making a decision either way until (she) better understand the situation.” Instead, she’s more concerned with the Irishman Scott (Nathan Howe), her own heartthrob.

Together, the three women are confined to an unnamed fort spending much of their days writing and receiving letters.

Unsurprisingly, Marie-Angelique uses her ink to write fan mail to Riel, with whom she begins to develop an epistolary relationship. Little does she know, however, that it isn’t Riel responding to her letters, but rather Scott, his totally smitten friend-turned-personal-assistant-turned-foe.

It’s upon this thread of hilarious dramatic irony which the play rests. We follow Marie-Angelique as she leaves the fort to meet Riel, only to discover he isn’t who she made him out to be.

Koncan treats Riel and Scott with little reverence. (At times, they’re portrayed in the form of action figure toys, handled by the women.) But then again, this isn’t a history lesson; it’s more like history through a fun house mirror.

In the hands of Nolan, this 110-minute production, featuring a cast of Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors, feels brisk, thrust along by punchline after punchline. Samantha McCue’s wooden sets, aided by soft lighting by Michelle Ramsay, gorgeously delineates the fort from the outside world. And Jeff Chief’s detailed period costumes add to the anachronistic gag that runs through this play. (Kudos too to Chief and the wig team for transforming Barker into a spitting image of Riel.)

MacLean underscores Marie-Angelique’s transformational journey of self-discovery, while Hyde’s Cecilia is mercurially guarded and self-defensive. It’s Peters, however, who is a standout as the droll and deadpan Eugenia, silently judging her companions with her sharp stare and furrowed brows — that is, of course, when she’s not composing blistering letters to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.

“Women of the Fur Trade” functions superbly as a biting satire, proposing a bold feminist critique of Riel’s Red River Rebellion. But two-thirds through the play, Koncan’s work finds another gear. Here, the play’s underlying absurdism simmers to the fore, as the three women become trapped in their fort, searching for an elusive door. Koncan, meanwhile, seamlessly dials back the humour to draw startling themes that connect this work of fiction with our present reality.

She seems to suggest that Marie-Angelique, Eugenia and Cecilia are representative of people in our society today. Some, like Cecilia, call themselves Indigenous allies just because they have Indigenous friends, even if they sit idly by, too afraid to take a stand. Others, perhaps, are like Marie-Angelique and Eugenia, willing to venture out beyond their places of comfort to insert themselves in the narrative.

It’s a testament to Koncan’s writing that “Woman of the Fur Trade” works so masterfully as a satire: it disarms with its wit, charms with its narratives and provokes with its timeless themes.


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