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vancouverplays review


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— L to Right: Colin Van Loon, T'skaya; Government official (Mask); Sam Bob: Jacob; Tetsuro Shigematsu: Kieji. Photo: Tim Matheson

by Nicola Harwood
Mortal Coil Performance Society
Britannia Heritage Shipyard, 5180 Westwater Dr., Richmond
Aug. 18-28
By donation

(This is Jerry's review of the original production from 2011.)

The weather until recently may have been dreadful but that hasn’t stopped local theatre companies from taking advantage of our extraordinary outdoor locales. The latest innovative setting is a stretch of beautiful shoreline along the South Arm of the Fraser River in Steveston.

The area is home to Britannia Heritage Shipyards, now a museum, and to lines of condos with spectacular views of the river and the Strait beyond. But once it was known as Cannery Row, where salmon were packed and turned into product. In Salmon Row, Mortal Coil Performance Society tells stories about the generations of people who lived on the river, fished it, and worked in those canneries before there were such things as condos.

More a pageant than a play, Salmon Row throws pretty much everything at the audience in Peter Hall’s production of Nicola Harwood’s script. Moving through five outdoor locations, we get First Nations dancers, choruses of children and actors on stilts. Missionaries in grotesque masks and larger-than-life animal puppets. An excellent martial arts knife fight. Songs and a band and some pretty broad acting from a large cast of veteran performers including Sam Bob, Kim Harvey, Patrick Keating, Alvin Sanders, Tetsuro Shigematsu, Quelemia Sparrow, Ronin Wong, and Donna Yamamoto.

The sprawling action covers almost a century, from the establishment of the first cannery in the mid-1800s through the Second World War, and the tribulations of the people who worked there. They were local First Nations and immigrants from Europe, China and Japan.

Cannery work was hard and in Salmon Row the management exploits the workers at every turn. Prejudice and suspicion lead to clashes between whites and Natives, Natives and Asians, whites and Asians, Chinese and Japanese.  Attempts at union solidarity founder on the rocks of cultural difference. Friends and families are split apart. But we see cross-cultural alliances develop, too, and individual success stories over the long run.

The history lesson also includes reminders of the often vicious racism and appalling government policies suffered by these groups during that time: the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act, Japanese fishing quotas and internment, the banning of the potlatch and the establishment of residential schools for Native children. One of the evening’s most effective theatrical moments introduces a canning machine that made many workers redundant. It was known as “The Iron Chink.”

Salmon Row is a little too long and rambling. And everyone needs to pick up their cues. But it’s an informative and entertaining way to learn about our fascinating heritage.

Wear sensible shoes and bring a wrap for the cool evening air.                              

Jerry Wasserman