'Berlin Blues' delivers laughs in Blyth Festival debut - July 13, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Berlin Blues suggests a world in which German developers want to turn a First Nations Reserve into a theme park exploiting the culture of those very same First Nations people. Perhaps it says something about the world in which we live today that this idea doesn’t seem very far-fetched.
Sure, the story is farcical and full of humour that’s maybe a little hard to picture in our day-to-day lives (and that’s what makes it funny), but the core fundamentals of the production are not as alien as maybe we would have felt in a different time.
In a time of cultural exploitation, cultural appropriation and the rising tension all over the world between those who see themselves as “native” to their country and others who maybe don’t share their skin colour, religion or language, the world’s people seem to be more at odds with their neighbours than ever.
One needs to look no further than our neighbours to the south and the polarizing Donald Trump presidency that has literally divided a nation for an example of this.
People are seeing each other for their differences, rather than their similarities, more than they have in decades. So it’s against this backdrop that you could forgive someone for believing that there would be a market for tens of thousands of Germans (many of whom have an advanced obsession with North American First Nations’ culture) to visit a gaudy theme park shrine to First Nations culture.
There are obvious, surface-level parallels in the story, of course, as locals are forced to pick up and relocate their lives from the reserve they called home to make room for said theme park. Not all of the Otter Lake residents are supportive of this proposal, but as the Euros roll in from Germany, most everyone comes on side.
Festival regulars Tony Munch and Catherine Fitch are brilliant as German developers Reinhart and Birgit, who have both made the theme park, affectionately (to them) called Ojibwe World, their life’s work. And, as they’ll tell you, while the park will be called Ojibwe World, its attractions will encapsulate aspects of all First Nations cultures, not just those of the Ojibwe.
Fitch and Munch shine as the comedic leads in the production. They perfectly embody the clockwork-like efficiency often attributed to the Germans and their no-nonsense approach is in stark contrast to the rather casual pace of life at the Otter Lake Reserve before they arrive.
They sit down in the office of Donalda, played by Nyla Carpentier, who is the reserve’s economic development officer. Donalda is blown away by the pair’s proposal that would take over the reserve in its entirety. She’s clearly torn between her culture and the potential for exploitation and the millions of dollars that would flow into the community annually, not to mention the hundreds of jobs and tens of thousands of tourists who would travel to the park annually.
Not only is Donalda torn between her community and making her community richer (but at a severe cost), but she’s also torn between her new life as a divorcee with two children and her previous life with an old flame named Trailer, played by Jonathan Fisher.
Trailer, named after his trailer which is said to be quite an eyesore in the reserve, is one of the biggest roadblocks to the development. He’s identified rather early as a community member who will need to come on-side if Ojibwe World is to move forward.
Birgit and Reinhart are more than willing to work with the First Nations folks they encounter in Otter Lake. They are fascinated by their culture, their actions and their traditions when they finally come face-to-face with those over whom they’ve obsessed for a lifetime.
J.D. Smith plays Andrew, the reserve’s police officer, and Nicole Joy-Fraser plays his girlfriend Angie – a fitness-obsessed young woman who wants a wedding in her future.
Smith and Joy-Fraser round out the Otter Lake community that is turned upside down when the Germans arrive to construct everything from a casino to an International Longhouse of Pancakes to a monstrous laser dream catcher. There is even talk of on-site musical productions in the spirit of some famous Hollywood films.
There are plenty of laughs in the first half of the play as the two cultures clash and get to know one another in various ways. However, in the second half, as the play turns more introspective and critical of what’s happening with Ojibwe World, the pace slows, as does progress on the project.
The Berlin Blues delivers laughs, while generating thought and conversation with accomplished director Brad Fraser at the helm of a great cast. And for a play first produced a decade ago, The Berlin Blues has never been more revelant.
The Berlin Blues runs in repertory at Memorial Hall until Aug. 19.