Manitoba·Review

History, humour and a dash of Keanu Reeves: Women of the Fur Trade a fun, clever look at Red River Resistance

Not only is Frances Koncan's new play Women of the Fur Trade a fun and clever look at the province's history, but by weaving in modern slang and references, the Winnipeg playwright highlights how many Indigenous issues from our past are still relevant today. 

New play by Winnipeg's Frances Koncan highlights how many Indigenous issues from our past are still relevant

Kelsey Kanatan Wavey as Eugenia, Kathleen MacLean as Marie-Angelique and Elizabeth Whitbread as Cecelia in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's production of Frances Koncan's new play Women of the Fur Trade. The play highlights how many Indigenous issues from Manitoba's past are still relevant today. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

"The story of the Red River Resistance has never been so funny" is a sentiment that very likely no one has ever uttered.

But it fits Winnipeg playwright Frances Koncan's new play, Women of the Fur Trade, which bridges history with humour, and a dash of 21st-century slang. 

Not only is the play a fun and clever look at the province's history, but by weaving in modern slang and references, Koncan (who is of Anishinaabe and Slovene descent) highlights how many Indigenous issues from our past are still relevant today. 

This Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse production is the world premiere of the full-length version of her play, which follows three women living in a room, in a fort, described as somewhere near the Red River during the "18-somethings." 

There's Marie-Angelique (Kathleen MacLean), who is Métis, and whose mother sent her to the fort for a better life; Eugenia (Kelsey Kanatan Wavey), a scrappy Ojibway trapper from northern Manitoba; and Cecelia (Elizabeth Whitbread), a settler woman waiting for her husband to return home. 

The three women, sitting on their rocking chairs, spill the tea — while drinking tea — on who they're crushing on. 

Though it's set in Manitoba's past, Koncan modernizes her story by incorporating current pop culture references. The stage is adorned by portraits of a mix of male heartthrobs — both historic and modern. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)
 

Marie-Angelique is the ultimate Louis Riel fan girl — she loves both what he stands for and his distinct moustache. Although married, Cecelia fancies Thomas Scott, the Canadian Party member and government surveyor later executed by Riel. And as for Eugenia, as a trapper she doesn't need a man — she can take care of herself. 

Koncan modernizes the story by incorporating current pop culture references. In fact, the stage is adorned by portraits of a mix of male heartthrobs — both historic and modern — including everyone from movie stars like Keanu Reeves and Rob Lowe to Métis leader (and Riel contemporary) Gabriel Dumont.

While the play may not always pass the Bechdel test, it does go beyond talk of men. The women discuss Indigenous-settler relations, which side of the Métis resistance they stand on, and what this all means in relation to their futures and friendships. 

Women of the Fur Trade is a refreshing take on Manitoba's history, says reviewer Stephanie Cram. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

And the women aren't without their own points of view, which they express through hilarious letters written to powerful men, such as Riel and Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The letters are swiftly sent, with correspondence returning back in record time — not quite historically accurate, but likely a subtle nod to modern text and email correspondence. 

When heartthrobs Louis Riel (John Cook) and Thomas Scott (Toby Hughes) finally make an appearance, they don't quite live up to the hype. Riel is the self-absorbed man Eugenia warns the other women about, and it turns out that Thomas Scott is hiding a secret.

The cast of Women of the Fur Trade are able to keep up with Koncan's fast-paced, sometimes silly script, and their performances play off each other well. And even with well-documented historical Canadian figures featured in the play, Cook's and Hughes's convincing performances make you wonder if that's in fact what Riel and Scott really were like.

John Cook as Louis Riel and Toby Hughes as Thomas Scott. The cast is able to keep up with Koncan's fast-paced, sometimes silly script, and their performances play off each other well. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

This play arrives at a particularly interesting point for Indigenous theatre in Canada, given the global media attention around Yolanda Bonnell's play Bug in Toronto, which she asked be reviewed only by people of colour. That play spurred discussion not only about how Indigenous people are represented on stage here, but also how we talk about those representations.

And with Manitoba's 150th anniversary falling this year, it is the perfect time to see Koncan's play. Given that the Métis nation of Manitoba — and in particular, Louis Riel — played an integral role in bringing the province into Confederation, Women of the Fur Trade is a refreshing take on Manitoba's history. 

In fact, before the play even started, actress Elizabeth Whitbread gave a brief land acknowledgement, and reminded the audience that the land on which the theatre sits is rich in Indigenous history.

It is the land on which the stories of the women of the fur trade were born.  

Women of the Fur Trade runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until March 14.

 

About the Author

Stephanie Cram is a Métis journalist originally from Edmonton. She currently works with the CBC Indigenous Unit, based in Winnipeg. Journalism has taken her to Montreal and Sachigo Lake First Nation in northern Ontario. She is a 2016 CJF Aboriginal Journalism Fellow.