Victor Davies’ The Ecstasy of Rita Joe opened last night in a production by Guillermo Silva-Marin at the Jane Mallett Theatre. It’s based on the play by George Ryga that caused a stir when it opened in Vancouver in 1967. The play was described as indirect and allusive with no clear narrative thread by the critics back then and was praised perhaps more for tackling the subject than for its intrinsic merits which were far from universally appreciated. Interestingly, as is so often the case in Canada, although rarely performed it has attained “classic” status. One word Victor Davies uses to describe the play is “expressionistic” but curiously rather than taking that as a jumping off point for the music (as Strauss and Berg did) he decides it’s an inappropriate idiom for “the lyric approach needed for the melody to unfold”. Why one needs “melody to unfold” in a disturbing tale of a young native woman’s descent into a hell of sexual abuse, alcohol, drugs, prison and, ultimately, her murder and why that melody should be couched in 1940s jazz/swing terms wasn’t obvious to me.
Some structural elements of Ryga’s play are retained. In particular it’s much more tell than show. Most of the pivotal moments in the drama are related in conversations between characters or in Rita Joe’s frequent court appearances for petty crimes, which display a detachment at odds with the events narrated. Even when we “see” the action the director chooses to make it as undramatic as possible. Rape is discretely hidden by an arm waving chorus and even Rita’s death is oddly matter of fact. The music emphasises this lack of genuine emotion. The vocal line is mostly flatly recitative like. There are maybe three “arias” in the whole piece. In the best of them, where Jaimie Paul, Rita’s boyfriend, sings of the Cessna that took Rita’s mother away to die, we briefly attain a level of real connection. Most of the time the dull vocal line backed up by jazzy riffs from piano, saxophone/clarinet, violin, cello and percussion just can’t do that. The choruses too are either weirdly upbeat or cloyingly sentimental. It’s an odd opera where the clarinettist gets the most memorable music.
It’s a shame the singers didn’t have more to work with because there are some very fine performances. Evan Korbut, as Jaimie Paul, was perhaps the most impressive of a line up of mainly Indigenous singers. His lyric baritone is rather beautiful and his command of the stage was complete. Marion Newman in the title role also impressed. Dramatically, there’s not much to work with to delineate Rita Joe’s fall from the “good Catholic girl from the reserve” to murdered thief and prostitute but Marion made the most of it. She sang clearly (every word audible – just as well, no surtitles) and often eloquently and her stage persona was believable and often elicited sympathy. She worked well with the lighter, brighter soprano voice of Michelle Lafferty effectively playing her younger sister Eileen.
The rest of the characters, alas, were as predictable as the commedia dell’arte or a Hollywood Western. Perhaps the best performance among them came Michael Robert-Broder as a strangely sympathetic magistrate. The legal system is perhaps the chief vector by which the racism and paternalism of Settler society is visited on Rita. I can’t make my mind up whether Robert-Broder’s portrayal undermined or reinforced that. Certainly he convinced as a man unsure of the value/justice of what he was doing but determined to do it anyway. There’s also a wise old chief (Rita Joe’s father), an elderly Catholic priest, a patronising dogooder and a sexually abusive boss and predatory white dudes among others along the way. They are all well played and sung but rarely rise above stereotypes. The chorus performed enthusiastically and occasionally quite beautifully but much of the time looked and sounded like they had wandered in from a production of Oklahoma!
The issues raised in the Ecstasy of Rita Joe are critical; at least as much today as in 1967, and it’s vital the arts engage with them. So congratulations to all concerned for taking on the challenge. I do feel though that some very unfortunate aesthetic choices undermined the potential power of the story reducing it to a long preachy and not especially engaging sermon.
There’s one more performance today at 2.30pm.
Photo credits: William Meijer from the Gary Beechey Studio