The Rez Sisters | Critical Review by David Richards

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Rez Sisters.
This section contains 805 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by David Richards

SOURCE: "Bingo as the Way of Escape, at Dismal Odds," in The New York Times, January 5, 1994, pp. C15, C21.

In the following review of the New York production of The Rez Sisters, Richards criticizes the play for its poorly plotted scenes and adolescent humor.

It's Toronto or bust for the seven impoverished Indians whom the Canadian playwright Tomson Highway calls The Rez Sisters.

That's where "the biggest bingo in the world" is about to be held. As the raucous women envision it with mounting excitement and a feverish gleam in their dark eyes, hitting the $1 million jackpot is how they'll change their hard-scrabble existence on the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve in Ontario. "When I win" is how they begin their wishful sentences. No one says, "If I win."

You don't need a crystal ball to predict the outcome of Mr. Highway's 1986 play, which opened last night at the New York Theater Workshop. For all their gumption, his characters are up against hopeless odds, in society as well as the bingo hall. Still, the drama, which has won awards in Canada, has to be more surprising than this ramshackle staging would suggest.

Mr. Highway, a Cree, may be writing about a mythical community, but The Rez Sisters ("Rez" is short for reserve) is rooted in harsh realities. Joblessness, prejudice and alcoholism are endemic. The old sustaining Indian rituals have died, replaced by the platitudes of consumerism and country-western music. While his women don't lack for get-up-and-go, they really have no place to go to. Surely, this is material for some pungent conflicts.

Unfortunately, all of the playwright's shortcomings, and none of his assets, are readily apparent in the production that the New York Theater Workshop has put together in collaboration with the American Indian Community House. He plots scenes clumsily and states points baldly. When the dialogue is meant to be ribald, it rarely rises above the level of adolescent bathroom humor. And if you want to know what it all adds up to, well, grizzled Pelajia Patchnose (stone-faced Gloria Miguel) is more than happy to tell you.

"Kinda silly, isn't it, this business of living." she mutters, after the flashing bingo lights have been extinguished and she and her sisters are settling back into the dreariness of their welfare lives. "But what choice do we have?… I figure 'we gotta make the most of it while we're here.'"

Mr. Highway's strongest gift, an ability to capture flamboyant personalities with their defenses down, remains largely unexploited. All the actresses belong to various tribes and several are sisters in real life, so their credentials would appear to be in order. Few of them, however, show signs of theatrical sophistication. Raw gusto, more than anything else, distinguishes their collective endeavors. (There are also two men on the fringes of the story. One beats a large drum and chants accompaniment. The other portrays the star-spangled bingo master, a defecating sea gull and the ominous nighthawk, a harbinger of death.)

The principal acting area is marked off by a semicircle of birch trees, and seven brightly painted chairs, grouped in clusters, serve as the van that takes the women on their long drive to Toronto. But if the two directors. Linda S. Chapman and Muriel Miguel, have chosen to approach the play non-realistically, their imagination seems to have dried up immediately afterward. All through The Rez Sisters you find yourself thinking that it needn't be this dull.

After all, one of Mr. Highway's characters, Marie-Adele Starblanket (Shella Tousey) has 14 children and is dying of cancer. Emily Dictionary (Murielle Borst), a barely reformed hellion with a tattoo on her shoulder, lost the love of her life, a woman, in a motorcycle accident. That indefatigable busybody Veronique St. Pierre (Lisa Mayo) has two equal sources of distress: a mentally deficient adopted daughter (Hortensia Colorado) and an erratic stove.

The garish Annie Cook (Elvira Colorado) sees herself as a country-rock star, a proposition that might be easier to accept if Ms. Colorado carried a tune better. As for loquacious Philomena Moosetail (Muriel Miguel again), her dyed and painted head is bursting with gossip and visions of the new toilet she'll purchase with her lucre from the bingo tables.

They may not be delicate souls, but they should be more affecting than they're allowed to be here. Ms. Tousey, who projects wan, unwavering strength beautifully, is pretty much alone in demonstrating that she knows how to navigate a stage. And the nighthawk makes short work of her.

Before the Rez sisters spread out their bingo cards and go for the big pot, the audience is invited to participate in a warm-up game. The cash prize, paid on the spot to the winner, is $20. The sum is not princely, granted. But this way, at least, it cannot be said, that everybody leaves the New York Theater Workshop empty-handed.

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This section contains 805 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by David Richards