It was a strange, yet thoroughly satisfying, case of day for Night this afternoon as I forsook the beautiful southern BC sunshine in Vancouver in order to plunge into the arctic darkness of Nunuvut's Pond Inlet, as imagined by the Toronto-based theatre company Human Cargo.
Written and directed by Christopher Morris, and featuring a stellar cast of four who perform the text in English and Inuktitut, Night--which plays the PuSh Festival through this Sunday in a co-presentation with Touchstone Theatre--is about many things, not the least of which is the opacity of bones, and what per force remains unknowable about the lives and stories and cultures of others. This is a lesson Daniella (Linnea Swan) learns the hard way; she is a white anthropologist from Toronto who has come to Pond Inlet in order to repatriate the bones of Lemeac Auqsaq, who was removed from the community during a TB outbreak several decades earlier. Having died in the south, his remains were promptly acquired by a museum for forensic research purposes. Daniella is returning the bones against the express wishes of the institution she works for and, she thinks, at the bidding of Lemeac's granddaughter, Piuyuq (Tiffany Ayalik), who happens to share the patriarch's name. But it turns out the email Daniella received came from Piuyuq's best friend, Gloria (Reneltta Arluk), who in an effort to escape the nightmare existence of her own home life is seeking with this gesture to reconcile Piuyuq with her father Jako (Jonathan Fisher), who in addition to never having said goodbye to his father has also recently lost his wife in a tragic accident for which Piuyuq blames him.
Needless to say, the happy and harmonious repatriation ceremony Daniella imagined does not come to pass, and the differently situated good intentions of the outsider anthropologist and the insider best friend lead to a spiralling set of recriminations that inevitably ends in tragedy. And yet the play eschews both empty pathos and easy solutions, prompting hard questions about what it means for southern Canadians to give up their paternalistic attitudes about life in the north (and what, instead, might replace those attitudes), as well as what it means for Indigenous northerners not to get buried under the weight of an inherited victimhood. This mutually reinforcing dialectic was brought out in the talkback following the performance, in which Ayalik talked about the youth suicide rate in Nunuvut (40 times the national average) alongside the ongoing cultural vibrancy of the community.
As compelling as Night is in terms of content, its formal construction and design elements also merit comment. At a tight 75 minutes, the play's action never flags, something aided immeasurably by the movement-based transitions between scenes, just one aspect of an overall physical score that enhances the text by tapping into a different, kinaesthetic quality of an audience's empathetic identification. Then, too, there is the amazing lighting design by Michelle Ramsay, that somehow manages to convey the light that, as again was alluded to in the talkback, is always a part of the arctic dark. Couple this with an immersive soundscore by Lyon Smith and Gillian Gallow's simple yet symbolically suggestive set, and you have the ossuary bones (to come back to my opening metaphor) of all great theatre--which is always about what disappears. And what remains.