Frankly, it’s not very hard to be smarter than me. And I like it when people are smarter than me. I like going to academic lectures where the speaker is smarter than me, knowing that I have things to learn from their particular topic. I like going to theatre productions where the writer is smarter than me, knowing that I have much to take from their dramatic output. Yet for some reason, when the two become intertwined, it doesn’t work. Suddenly, it feels less like you’re showing me that you’re smarter than me and more like you’re telling me.
Such was the feeling I had while watching Reservations, actor/writer Steven Ratzlaff’s newest stage show about the complexities of indigenous issues in modern Canada. The play is actually two plays, Pete’s Reserve and Standing Reservations, each running about an hour long, and each devoted to a specific subset of indigenous controversy. Pete’s Reserve focuses on the colonial conquest of Native lands, while Standing Reservations is more about the dark “assimilationist” ideals of 20th Century Canada. These are complex issues. Indeed, these are important issues. Yet they are issues that require “speaking of,” not “speaking at.” The play, however, climaxes with a long (too long) mock academic lecture about the importance of indigenous children being exposed to indigenous culture . . . and something to do with Heidegger. In some respects, the sequence works. The play’s audience is subtly invited to act as the real life audience to this lecture, and one of the main characters, Jenny, joins the audience and becomes that antagonistic person sitting in the front row (don’t you just love that person?). She does have reason to be upset, however, and the confrontational aspect of the sequence is its strength. Its weakness is everything else, where the play blurs the line between dramatic intellectualism and literal intellectualism. The latter, typically, is not why most people go to the theatre. I’m never against being challenged by a piece of fiction, but I prefer it to happen through theme and characterization, not scholarship.
It’s hard to call Reservations preachy. It has a lot on its mind, but it is smart enough to present both sides of its arguments, and both end up being equally compelling. Mostly, it is the age old debate between morality and pragmatism, which is never a bad place for creating dramatic tension. Yet I can’t help but feel the opportunity was squandered. Too often it feels like a debate for the brain, not one for the heart.
There are a lot of big words in the play. Grown-up words for grown-up issues, right? Are they though? In the end, Reservations isn’t saying you should “do the right thing,” because the right thing is never decided upon. Nor can it be. It really just wants to say, “Be good to each other,” and that’s not an adult idea. That idea is as old as time. So while Reservations is hard on concepts, and does feature some clever dialogue, it might have served itself better to be more upfront with its emotions. People get angry in the play, yes, but it always seems to be for some logistically grounded reason. I’d rather watch people get upset because they are human beings, for theatre is at its best when it is just that – human.