Reservations asks timely questions about indigenous, settler culture clash

Winnipeg playwright Steven Ratzlaff's Reservations, seeing its world premiere as Theatre Projects Manitoba's season closer, is grand in its scope and ambitions. And if it works imperfectly, it is remarkable for how much it manages to tie together in a piece that should resonate for Manitobans in particular.

New Theatre Projects play works imperfectly, but puts on relevant, intellectually stimulating show

Steven Ratzlaff, Sarah Constible and Tracey Nepinak in Theatre Projects Manitoba's Reservations, two short plays that have particular resonance for Manitobans. (Leif Norman)

Restitution, reconciliation, treaties, child and family services, devolution and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Winnipeg playwright Steven Ratzlaff's Reservations, seeing its world premiere as Theatre Projects Manitoba's season closer, is certainly grand in its scope and ambitions.

And if it works imperfectly, it is remarkable for how well it manages to tie all of that, and more, into a piece that should have deep resonance for Manitobans in particular.

Reservations is actually two thematically-linked one-act plays, titled Pete's Reserve and Standing Reserve. The first deals with Pete (played by Ratzlaff), a Mennonite farmer in Alberta, and his decision to enact his own reconciliation with an almost childishly simple solution — he'll bequeath his millions of dollars worth of land to the Siksika First Nation, returning the land to the people who originally lived on it.

This doesn't sit well with his daughter Anna (Sarah Constible), a struggling actor counting on the rich inheritance. And it leaves Pete's second wife Esther (Tracey Nepinak), a Cree woman, stuck in the middle of a family feud.

In Standing Reserve, Constible plays Jenny, a woman determined to keep the three foster children she's raising with her somewhat disinterested husband Mike (Ratzlaff), and facing off against Denise (Nepinak), an aboriginal family services bureaucrat who argues for the importance of devolution and for the children to maintain a connection to their home reserve — a place Jenny argues they'd be better off leaving behind them.

Provocative questions about reconciliation

Through these stories, Ratzlaff as playwright poses provocative questions about what reconciliation might really look like, about how the cultures of indigenous people and settlers can find bridges or be divided, about how we best care for the children who are descendants of people subjected to great injustices — and who live in a world that is in many ways still unjust.

It's a cerebral work, and I doubt I'll be alone in leaving having learned things I didn't know about treaties, family services and German philosophy.

Reservations features strong performances and impressive design work. (Theatre Projects Manitoba/Facebook)
But it isn't generally a didactic rant (with one notable exception — more on that in a moment). Ratzlaff creates well-defined characters, sets up taut conflicts and writes dialogue that is intelligent and pointed.

Those looking for intellectually stimulating theatre will be richly rewarded by Reservations.

But its intellectual heft becomes a weakness when Standing Reserve bogs down in a far-too-long scene that literally becomes a lecture on Heidegger, and the connection between his philosophy and traditional Cree teachings. While it drives to a powerful conclusion, it's a weak spot in an otherwise compelling piece.

Impressive performances

From a production standpoint, the three cast members all do impressive work with Ratzlaff's demanding dialogue. The bitterness of the characters Constible plays sometimes has the effect of undermining the arguments they represent in the two plays, but as a performer, she's successful in bringing forth a vulnerability that makes the characters understandable, if not always likeable.

Nepinak does outstanding work in Standing Reserve in particular, bringing both a steely dignity and flawed humanity to her character.

And Ratzlaff is particularly good in Pete's Reserve, portraying a man who is idealistic, though not naive.

Co-directors Emma Tibaldo and Ian Ross stage the production beautifully, giving it a driving pace but also plenty of room to breathe and for its ideas to percolate.

It's also given an ethereal, often eerie unsettledness by sound designer and composer Andrew Balfour, who provides subtle sound and music cues and by video projections from lighting designer Hugh Conacher.

It all amounts to a piece of theatre that may be imperfect, but is also absorbing and contributes an important voice to conversations that are vital to us right now.

It's bound to start conversations that will carry well past the theatre doors.

Reservations runs at the Rachel Browne Theatre (211 Bannatyne Ave.) until Mar. 20.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.