Provoking the Narrative: AlterNatives Review

Two actors talking amidst books AlterNatives. Charles Bender and Xavier Watso. Photo Andrée Lanthier

As far as theatre goes, AlterNatives (directed by Xavier Huard) is easy to get meta about. The title alone can be read multiple ways, each with its own implications. But, for this critique, I take the show at face value, a politicized comedy about a mixed-race couple, Angel, an Annishnaabe sci-fi writer (Étienne Thibeault) and his significantly older girlfriend, Colleen, a secular Jewish academic (Nadia Verrucci). The two host their first dinner party where the cultural and social divide between the guests is so wide that disaster seems inevitable. At the party are Colleen’s friends, Michele (Natalie Tannous) and Dale (Charles Bender), a liberal, white, upper-middle class couple hailing from Downtown Montreal, and Angel’s old friends, a working-class/student Indigenous couple who have left their reserve for Ahuntsic. But instead of relying on familiar media stereotypes, some identities and situations are complete inversions (even Dale, a white character, is played by an Indigenous actor). The result is a smart production with much to say and much to think about. But if there is one thing this play isn’t, it’s not nuanced. This is the realm of satire; expect to feel pricked no matter who you are.

The show begins with a living room rock show held amidst piles of books as the lovey-dovey lit prof and her long-haired artist prepare for the guests. Angel is the free-spirited artist who rocks and guitar and tells Anishnaabe stories about porcupines while Colleen advises him what to wear, what to read, and what to write to advance his career. Each is preparing a dish from the other’s culture. He is making rugalach. She is roasting moose.  They haven’t yet navigated their cultural differences and there’s a certain amount of learning underway about what is fair to assume about the other. Or, more precisely, Colleen makes a lot of assumptions about her young lover. Colleen teaches Indigenous literature and she can’t quite get past her scholarly approach to all things Anishnaabe, even when it contrasts with lived experiences.

The evening takes a sharp turn when Colleen announces a special surprise; she’s invited Yvonne (Lesly Velázquez) and Bobby Rabbit (Xavier Watso), Angel’s old friends to the party. Her ulterior motive is to learn more about Angel’s mysterious past, but the two are self-proclaimed “AlterNative Warriors,” guided by “an allegiance to the truth.” Like Socratic gadflies, they provoke people for fun and show the hypocrisies of long-held, cherished beliefs. They wield their tactics on Quebec separatists and raging vegans, but they also have turned their bleak critique on their own community. For example, Yvonne explains how the common text appearing in many Montreal land acknowledgements that the territory is the unceded lands of the Mohawk contrasts with Cartier’s records of Hochelaga that show meetings with other Indigenous groups. In consequence, Bobby and Yvonne are “in exile.” Angel has seemingly distanced himself from them with no intent to return.

Once the doorbell rings, there’s little to be done. Michele bustles in with henpecked Dale in tow. She gets tanked on wine (in contrast to Yvonne and Bobby — a reversal on the ‘drunk Indian’ stereotype). Dale, once a carnivore and now a relationship-vegan, is entranced by the smell of moose, and leaps to offer advice how to prepare it. The two present naïve, liberal views on Indigenous people, asking inappropriate questions, making offensive statements, and stumbling headfirst into awkwardness. Bobby is all too glad to instigate trouble. Yvonne, though, has her sights on taking down Colleen, as her good intents for Angel are perhaps just as ignorant and ultimately, more insidious.

This perfect storm of people who stir one another up results in lots of great lines and funny situations. The play is excellent comedy. I also found the flickering lights and raging screams that interrupted the narrative intriguing, but could not figure out what these avant-garde moments mark. The ending with its nod to Indo-Futurism and excellent costuming (thumbs up to costume designer Meky Ottawa for that) was also cool. On the other hand, I was slightly less taken with the occasional history lesson that gets thrown into the dialogue when it arrives in the form of an info-dump. They sound out of place during a dinner party conversation, and feel very pointed towards educating the audience rather than the characters.

These less realistic moments also suggest that this play, as stated before, is not just about a dinner party of clashing manners. Contemporary lit classes will have a good time dissecting what Drew Hayden Taylor intends to say for years to come. The play can be read as a metaphor for Canada’s fractured relationship to its Indigenous peoples. There’s a fantastic scene where Dean apologizes profusely and then quickly backtracks under his bossy wife’s commands, mirroring the reality of government promises to Indigenous peoples that are just as swiftly dismissed when they no longer serve their purpose. But I also saw AlterNatives as a political statement on the dangers of assimilation and how stories shape perception, much in alignment with writer Thomas King who is referenced in the show. If Indigenous people want to retain their culture, they need to stay in their own lane. Through the mouths of his characters and situations, Taylor makes no secret of his own stances on some controversial points, including what defines a person an Indigenous person (not blood quotient, but growing up in the culture), the importance of access to traditional food sources like seal, and how assimilated Jews have lost their language and culture.

On that note, one thing left me particularly uncomfortable with this show: its message. I disagree with its pessimistic outlook which suggests there is no possibility of a bridge between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples except that we are inhabitants of the same planet and share in its future. I hold that curiosity about other cultures and a desire to understand them or experience them isn’t necessarily an act of colonialization or selfishness. As social animals, encounters with others can be a pleasure, and further, it is part of our evolutionary strategy in so far that it enriches our knowledge for survival and erases enmity between groups. It is harder to harm a friend than to harm someone we have dehumanized or don’t know. Instead, what I believe is that for these encounters to be successful, those participating need to practice humility and sensitivity and to enter in the spirit of communion and curiosity rather than one of superiority or arrogance. However, I can’t deny that even the most benign cross-cultural interaction brings losses, and the long-term effects can be devastating.

These kinds of deep questions about who we are and how we should live our lives, are the sort of questions that good art provokes. All in all, AlterNatives is an important show, a thought piece, and highly recommended.

AlterNatives is at the Centaur Theatre until November 5. Tickets and show times can be found HERE.

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