Kid +1 Review: Spirit Horse (Young People’s Theatre)

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Indigenous-focused Spirit Horse is essential and educational, and on Toronto stages now

Young People’s Theatre has opened their mainstage season with Spirit Horse, a Native American adaptation by Drew Hayden Taylor of the Irish play Tir Na N’og by Greg Banks, who also directed this production. Taylor is a First Nations writer I love for his humour and poignancy, and this offering is no exception.

The set struck me as soon as I stepped into the theatre with my young companion. A large moon on a backdrop illuminates a complex structure of wood and metal, like the chaotic vision of a safety-averse playground designer. On stage right sits an old bench seat from a car, held together with duct tape, exactly like what served as outdoor seating at my family home.

As the show begins, we understand that Angelina Wildwind (Lisa Nasson) has a deep longing for her dead mother; that Jesse Wildwind (Brianne Tucker) is also hurting but focused on protecting her little sister; that their father is too stricken with grief to parent, and their grandfather is loving but can’t help (both parts played by Cameron Johnston.)

The Spirit Horse first appears to Grandfather, who is still in touch with their Native spirituality – likely he is too old to have been subject to the Sixties Scoop that enacted both cultural and literal genocide, but that is my own personal interpretation. Knowing that the creature is meant to help his son and grandchildren, he brings her to them in Calgary. But Grandfather is of the land and cannot stay in the crowded, noisy city.

This horse is so magical that she can fit in an elevator to reach their high rise apartment, but even that is not enough to rouse Father from his depression. The two girls fall in love with her right way and Angelina’s asthma is even miraculously cured. But soon she is taken from them by authorities wielding racist language and violence against the Wildwind family.

While the horse and the action of the play may be fictional, unfortunately the treatment of indigenous people by police and others is all too true to life. Taylor makes his points clear, unsullied by euphemism, while still using a touch light enough to make it suitable fare for the 8 years of age and older set.

While my companion wasn’t forthcoming about her opinions on the play, she ranked it a 9 out of 10, so that speaks highly. I know that I was surprised to find tears in my eyes at the very final scene. Both the tears and the surprise speak to an intelligently devised theatrical experience that engages deftly across a wide age range.

Facilitating the creation of multitude places and atmospheres is a live musician onstage. Alternating between drums, accordion and fiddle, Nicolas Delbaere-Sawchuk manages to be both innocuous and ever-present. My understanding is that some shows will feature Anne Lederman, the composer, as the musician.

Apart from the main characters, the actors also embody a large assortment of minor players; from cops to dogs to passers-by, all three show range and the ability to switch on a dime. At the Q&A after the show, one of the children in the audience asked about this aspect of their craft. Cameron Johnston explained his tactics in terms of grounding and physicality in a manner that was comprehensive and precise. Another question prompted Brianne Tucker to enlighten us about the preparation required for her acrobatic feats on the aforementioned jungle gym of a set.

Q&As are especially common, and important, in theatre for young audiences. I particularly appreciated how this one began with each actor identifying not just their name but also the First Nation they are from. It is important that kids (and adults) learn about Indigenous culture from Indigenous people, but also that they are real people, living and breathing in the modern day.

Given that education around Indigenous culture is one of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that it should be incumbent on caregivers as well as schools, I urge anyone with a loving relationship to a child 8 or older to see what Spirit Horse has to offer, provided they have the access to do so.

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Photo of Lisa Nasson, Anne Lederman, Cameron Johnston and Brianne Tucker by Ali Sultani