I confess that Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf was not a play I was familiar with even two weeks ago. But when I learned it was to serve as the basis of Hiro Kanagawa's contemporary adaptation, Indian Arm, on at Studio 16 in a Rumble Theatre production directed by Stephen Drover through next Saturday, I duly did my homework.
One of Ibsen's later works, Little Eyolf revolves around another dysfunctional marriage, with Rita and Alfred Allmer in this case substituting for Nora and Torvald Helmer of A Doll's House (one even hears the character echos in the similar sounding surnames). Rita and Alfred are parents to a disabled child, Eyolf, whom Rita resents for coming between her and her husband (indeed, in typical Ibsonian fashion the boy's physical handicap is even linked to his mother's surfeit of passion, the result of an accident as a baby while his parents were absorbed in their lovemaking). However, onto this proto-kitchen sink/social problem narrative Ibsen, unusually for him, also overlays an allegorical frame in the character of the Rat-Woman, a Pied Piper-like figure who lures the now adolescent Eyolf to his death by drowning. In the wake of this tragedy, Rita and Alfred take turns blaming each other before coming to a kind of mutual understanding and forgiveness at the end. There is also a subplot involving Alfred's stepsister, Asta, and an engineer who is courting her, but that doesn't really figure in Kanagawa's version.
Indian Arm is the first play in a new commissioning project inaugurated by Rumble that will see classic plays from the Western dramatic canon adapted to contemporary Canadian (and, one assumes, largely West Coast) contexts (up next is Colleen Murphy's take on Titus Andronicus). For Kanagawa that has meant making the boy, Wolfie as he is called here (and played affectingly as a mentally disabled teenager by Richard Russ), an adopted First Nations child whose sudden interest in his heritage (encouraged by his father, but viewed with suspicion by his mother) is symptomatic of a larger narrative of Indigenous cultural inheritance that the playwright is interested in telling. To that end, we learn that Rita (Jennifer Copping) and her younger half-sister Asta (Caitlin McFarlane) are also dealing with the complicated legacy of their recently deceased father, Eric the Red, who in the 1960s built a cabin on traditional Tsleil-Waututh lands near Deep Cove and was allowed to remain living there by the local band council as a result of his compassion towards survivors of an Indian Residential School. One of those survivors, the elder Janice (played with a suitable mixture of gravitas and sly wit by Gloria May Eshibok), now keeps appearing outside the cabin, charming Wolfie by telling him that the Tsleil-Waututh people are also Children of the Wolf and disabusing an increasingly vexed Rita of the notion that her father was some saintly saviour of Indigenous peoples.
This is just one instance where Kanagawa weaves in references to other of Ibsen's works--in this case Ghosts. Indeed, one of the strengths of his adaptation is that, for those in the know, it is at once a recognizable updating of Ibsen's original and a wholly independent work that speaks powerfully to its local contexts of production--where, for example, Indigenous land claims and an obsession with real estate development are thoroughly and complexly intertwined. In particular, Janice--as a version of the Rat-Woman--is both allowed to represent a Trickster figure (the mischief-making Mouse-Woman of Haida legend) and to become a fully realized character in her own right, one who has a past with Rita's father and who, in the present, is also dealing with a troubled youth from her own community.
The trickier bit for the playwright is handling Ibsen's unique brand of nineteenth-century domestic melodrama. I was feeling neither the just-below-the-surface sexual heat nor the deeper layers of emotional resentment between Copping's Rita and Gerry Mackay's Alfred during the first act (which was compounded by Mackay stumbling over several of his lines). In the couple's climactic confrontation in act two things felt more real, in the same way that, as a result of Janice's return and her filling in of hers and Eric's backstory, Rita's conversion to the cause of Indigenous sovereignty seemed more justly earned.
At the heart of that cause is a deep-seated connection to the land, a focal point of Kanagawa's script that is wonderfully materialized in Drew Facey's amazing set, which manages to put us in the middle of a forest. There are still a few dramaturgical things to smooth over in this production, but what I like most about this play is that it refuses to apply the same principle to its politics.