‘The Unplugging’ plays to an over-packed house on Debajehmujig stage

Jan Kudelka (Elena), Pandora Topp (Bern), musician Marsha Coffey and Zachary Smithers pose following last Saturday’s sold out production of Yvette Nolan’s ‘The Unplugging’ at Debajehmujig Storytellers Larry E. Lewis Creation Centre.

MANITOWANING—Extra chairs had to be brought out as the curtain was about to go up on the North Road Theatre production of Yvette Nolan’s ‘The Unplugging’ at Debajehmujig Storyteller’s Larry E. Lewis Creation Centre in Manitowaning—always a great sign—and the audience was treated to a performance that proved their attendance on a late winter Saturday night was well worth the effort.

The production, starring Pandora Topp as Bern, Jan Kudelka as Elena and Zachary Smithers as Seamus, had plenty of Island connections, including Marsha Coffey (music performance), Bill Shawanda (costume design and props) and Carla Ritchie (lighting design).

The play, set in a post-apocalyptic world in which all things electric have ceased to function, tells the story of two Anishinaabe women who are banished from their village, Bernadette (Bern), the proverbial flighty “grasshopper” who was deemed to be not pulling her weight in the community, and Elena, a cantankerous and complaining elderly woman who was deemed too old to be of any use. The duo battle the elements and manage to survive by tapping into the traditional knowledge that Elena gleaned from her grandmother, with Elena teaching Bern how to survive in a hostile environment. They are joined by Seamus, a young man purportedly also cast out of the community. Together, the trio travels along a character development line that sees Elena overcome her bitterness to become a true elder, Bern becoming a resourceful and confident survivor “ant” and Seamus on the bridge to redemption.

Each of the actors brought a transcendence of the sparse set keeping their audience riveted to the action going on stage. Ms. Topp, an alumnus of the world premiere of Tomson Highway’s ‘The (Post) Mistress,’ among many other accomplishments, was outstanding in the role of Bern, bringing the audience along with her as she transforms into a confident Anishinaabe kwe, and an elder in her own right, while retaining her liveliness and human spirit.

Ms. Kudelka, a member of the cast of ‘Hair’ (she was Tribe) in its original production at the Royal Alexandra Theatre and a veteran of two seasons at the Stratford Theatre, as well as her own critically acclaimed one woman tour ‘Circus Gothic,’ channeled beautifully her role as a angry old woman who rediscovers her own worth and value as a human being through the offices of her grandmother’s teachings of traditional knowledge.

Certainly not least in this amazing trio, Mr. Smither’s Seamus was a tour de force of innocence transformed by discovery and enlightenment. It is difficult to believe that this is his first step in professional theatre since graduating from Canadore’s Performing Arts program.

The original music was performed by Marsha Coffey, a name very familiar to those lucky enough to have seen the early Debaj work ‘Lupi The Great White Wolf’ and is a veritable fixture on the Canadian theatre scene. Ms. Coffey, ensconced within a circle of drums, cymbals, chimes and other instruments, was fundamental to setting and creating the atmosphere.

Ms. Ritchie’s inspired use of lighting and Ms. Coffey’s music were as much a players on the stage as the actors themselves, all working together under the inspired direction of North Road founder and director Bill Lane.

The pacing and cadence of the production has been criticized in previous reviews of this play, but other than the long introductory scene in the wilderness, which this writer would argue is actually critical to the setting of the story, Mr. Lane and his team clearly had no issue keeping their audience enthralled from the wailing opening to the redemptive final curtain.