'Cottagers and Indians' excels with comedy on a complex issue
BY DENNY SCOTT
Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers and Indians takes a serious issue and a serious underlying concern and presents them in an approachable and comedic manner.
The two-hander play explores the issue - who has the right to waterways - and the underlying concern - the reminder that regardless of any other concern, the people on either side of an argument are just that: people. The Blyth Festival premiered the play last week at the Harvest Stage at the Blyth Campground. It will run through Aug. 6.
The play focuses on the strife between Kelly McIntosh’s Maureen Pool and Arthur Copper, played by James Dallas Smith. Pool wants the lake to remain as it was when she and her husband bought their cottage, however Copper, a member of the Anishinaabe Nation, feels it is his right to plant manoomin, or wild rice, in those same waterways.
Smith plays a stubborn individual who wants to bring back some of the old ways for his own personal reasons. He does a fantastic job of walking the line between anger and comedy and flippancy and indignation while McIntosh’s Pool is a more static character: a human resources professional who finds herself between the hard place of her own expectations of her cottage and the lake and the rock that is Smith’s Copper.
Between the personal history of Pool and the longer-reaching “history lessons” provided by Copper, just how invested each person is in the future of the lake, as they want to see it, is on full display thanks to the efforts and skills of the two actors on stage.
While the actors do a fantastic job of bringing the play to life, the production designers, Blyth Festival regular Beth Kates and First Nations artist Moses Lunham, do a fantastic job of blending the down-to-earth set and props with beautifully-crafted backgrounds that bring the play to life and mirror the conflict happening on stage. Lunham, a member of the Anishinabek Nation at Kettle and Stony Point, created beautiful backdrops that illustrate the lake and aspects of the story. The portion of the set that makes up Pool’s deck and dock feel exactly as they should, from the beat-up barbecue that would feel at home at a cottage on any small (or Great) lake alongside a pair of rustic Adirondack chairs that are similarly welcoming. Copper’s campsite, canoe and collection of seeds and manoomin feel real as he talks about how important the lake is to him and his people.
Smith, who plays double-duty as Copper and as the sound designer, brings his best to the stage and speakers, while the hand of director Deneh’Cho Thompson shows clearly through the timing of the actors and the tone set by everyone involved with the play.
While the play stands out as a great comedy and a great primer to the real-life issue that inspired it, locals and visitors alike with a cottaging history of their own may find the debate within the play, and the character of Pool, uncomfortable. While Taylor has said his goal was to present the debate evenly, Pool, in my opinion, definitely comes off as the less sympathetic of the duo, despite the challenges she has faced. Those who enjoy spending time at a family cottage along the scenic Huron County lakeshore may need to be reminded that Pool (and her neighbours) aren’t indicative of everyone who spends their summer weekends at the lake, but a particular breed of cottager that led to the dispute in the first place.
Regardless, the play offers comedy throughout, drama in the latter half and a chance to look at the issue of the rights to waterways through two very different lenses.