Review: Bears (Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre)

BEARS by Matthew MacKenzie_(back) Christine Sokaymoh Frederick (centre) Sheldon Elter and chorus-Photo by Alexis McKeownBears, created by Matthew MacKenzie and Monica Dottor for Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre, and now back at Factory Theatre after winning Doras for Outstanding Production and Outstanding New Play (Independent Theatre) last year, is a controlled explosion of a show. A longterm, trusted tar sands employee often trotted out as a token Native supporter of Big Oil, Floyd (Sheldon Elter) is now on the run to avoid the company and government’s retribution for a workplace “accident” that seems a deliberate act of sabotage.

The play starts with the action already in progress as Floyd flees, and this rapid pace, tension, and excitement don’t let up for the full, quick 75 minutes. As this sensory treat flies by, you may have to catch yourself, like Floyd does, and remember to breathe.

Writer-director Matthew MacKenzie, of Cree, Ojibwe, and Métis heritage, blurs the line between myth and reality in a tightly-written script that takes aim at the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline. Through Floyd’s constant, third-person narration, we see how his tenure on oil spill clean-up crews gradually leaches the life out of him, as the spill does to the wilderness it touches. Floyd himself is a wild being, a child of nature; as he runs, he not only connects with the bears he calls his kin, but becomes one himself. How much of this is real and how much a mythic metaphor is left to the viewer to decide.

Floyd’s quest to reconnect is assisted by memories of his mother, a warm, brave vision movingly played by Tracey Nepinak. He’s also aided by a dancing chorus of eight women (led by dance captain Lara Ebata and choreographed by Dottor), who physically buoy him up and become the animals and plants who serve as a cheering squad and savior. They also occasionally give voice to Floyd’s inner thoughts, cursing in unison for impact.

Representing otters to chickadees to butterflies, the women are champions of metamorphosis, featuring uncanny synchronization, with transitions so smooth as to almost feel magical. Simple yet powerful costume pieces that highlight the creatures (Dottor again, with Brianna Kolybaba) effectively complete the illusion. The costumes also work metaphorically, as shedding elements of his work uniform helps Floyd find himself.

All of this action is housed within a gorgeous set (T. Erin Gruber) primarily made of wall hangings. Projections over artfully draped representations of mountains and rocks appear almost luridly neon at times. It’s also enclosed by a soundscape (Noor Dean Musani) that’s alternately pulse-pounding and soothing, capturing both Floyd’s desperate flight and his appreciation of his natural surroundings.

Elter, a veteran actor, has absolutely tremendous, magnetic presence, commanding the stage at all times. His voice booms magnificently, the better to deliver a speech that combines charmingly misplaced modifiers and mixed metaphors of Canadiana with pulse-racing action and moments of genuine descriptive beauty. The only downside to the crystal-clear diction is that it makes the colloquial phrasings such as ending “–ing” words as “–in’” sound more deliberately affected than natural.

His physicality is a joy to watch, as he slowly not only takes up the gait and space of a bear, but also mimics the balletic movements of the chorus in a way that’s simultaneously clumsy and graceful. He even tap-dances away from the RCMP. Another highlight is a curious dance of discovery with another bear (Gianna Vacirca) that makes the strongest case for the transformation metaphor being real.

My favourite physical moments, though, were subtle: the broad, bright, childlike smiles of wonder while Floyd reminisces about moments where he and his mother made each other proud. They’re so simple, and yet so transporting – you can see the years fall away.

Bears is not just the story of one man’s flight and transformation; the action is interspersed with serious but not didactic messaging about the horrifying effect of the oil industry on the natural world. MacKenzie fills his piece with arresting imagery, Floyd musing about what sort of changes toxic gases might make to the aurora borealis, and the shock of an apex predator found, staring, dead, in a pool of wastewater. It’s a powerful work reminding us that when it comes to the destruction of all we hold dear, we can’t just grin and bear it.


  • Bears plays at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.) until March 17, 2019.
  • Shows are at 8:00PM Tuesday-Saturday, with 2:00PM matinees Saturday-Sunday
  • Tickets are $30-50 and can be purchased online, in person at the Box Office, or by calling 416-504-9971

Photo of Christine Sokaymoh Frederick (centre), Sheldon Elter and chorus by Alexis McKeown