Firehall Arts Centre

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga

Dates and Venue 21 November - 8 December 2007 @ 20.00 | The Firehall Arts Centre, Vancouver

Director Donna Spencer

Reviewer Erin Jane

Having read George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in university years ago, I already knew its importance and relevance to today’s society. The play tells the tragic story of a young native woman who moves from her home on the reservation to the city of Vancouver and is steadily abused and broken down by asystem she does not understand (be it through societal rules, law enforcement, and even the judicial system) until her tragic end at the city's hands.

I was thus full of anticipation on my way to see George Ryga’s celebrated play directed by Jessie-Award-winner Donna Spencer at the Firehall Theatre. And there couldn’t have been a better venue for the show. Right in the heart of the Downtown East Side, I arrived by bicycle in the bitter cold, seeing the flash of police lights and hearing the occasional siren on Cordova Street.

Director Donna Spencer makes a note of saying that, sitting in the center of Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood and witnessing tragedies unfolding on the city streets every day, “we should be reminded of how unfortunate it is that forty years later this play remains as relevant as it was when it was first written.” Truer words could not be written.

Rita Joe enters the bare stage, with no one else present but a magistrate (William B. Davis, best known for his role on "The X-Files" as the Cigarette-Smoking Man) and a nearly out of sight folk singer who provides the bare bones soundtrack for the entire play.

Lisa Ravensbergen does an exceptional job playing the part of Rita Joe, and is strangely just as I would have pictured in my mind. Her portrayal of the confused and alienated Rita s effortless but powerful. The play's disjointed structure was not hard to follow, as Rita’s memories blur into one another, and her memories and reality overlap.

Jarring memories interrupt other more pleasant ones, and the reappearing young folk singer moves in and out of the stage’s shadows to provide simple acoustic melodies to the story. While Tracey Power’s melodic interludes were consistent and an important part of the performance, I felt they were quite shrill and jarring at times, whether intended or not. To be sure, the play’s main characters were really what made this an extraordinary performance, in particular Ravensbergen’s Rita Joe and Kevin Loring’s solid performance as Rita’s close friend, Jaimie Paul.

Even the most gut-wrenching of scenes were carried out by all actors very naturally. Particularly moving was the final scene, as Emalene Manuel (a Ktunaxa/Sucwepmec Native American from Aqam) sings a mournful traditional native song with incredible intensity. She is joined by Tricia Collins, who plays Eileen Joe, Rita’s sister.

For the most part, performances by many in the cast were fairly subdued, which suited the play well. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe was, all in all, a powerful and thought-provoking performance and definitely not to be missed.

© 2007 Erin Jane