Review: Cottagers and Indians (Tarragon Theatre)

Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre presents Drew Hayden Taylor’s play; an uplifting piece of Canadiana

Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers and Indians, currently playing at the Tarragon Theatre, is a light and warm take on the conflict between native culture and bourgeois property owners. From the first moment we see Arthur Copper in his canoe and Maureen Poole on her cottage dock, we know exactly who each of them is and the audience can settle in for an uplifting piece of current Canadiana. 

Before our two main characters appear, Robin Fisher’s set has already established a palpable sense of place. At one end there’s a canoe sitting amongst reeds, on the other we have a dock with Muskoka chair and barbeque. The simple backdrop mural suggests a lake edge and expanse of sky. With varying light, Nick Andison takes us from early morning to dusk and the effect is particularly evocative. Beau Dixon’s sound design fills in the atmosphere with subtle birdsong and the occasional passing vehicle.

We open on Copper, an Anishnaabe man in his canoe, who tells us about his passionate connection to the land and the water of the area. He’s planting wild rice (manoomin), partly to earn a living, but more to honour and maintain native agricultural tradition. As Copper, Herbie Barnes is affable, endearing and full of mischievous good humour.

Then we meet Maureen Poole, there on her dock, barbecuing organic chicken with one hand, a glass of white wine in the other.  The play frames her, initially, as the sillier of the two, specifically poking fun at her middle-class, urban, socialite persona. She wears socks under her sandals and says things like “I saw Dances With Wolves” to prove her supports for the native plight. She finds Copper’s manoomin an eyesore and laments on  how it is disrupting her leisure activities and ruining her property value.  As Poole, Tracey Hoyt is sincere and amusing.

This wild rice sparks the clash between them, but as they argue their individual right to the property, we realize that the conflict goes far deeper. Seeds are planted, plants are dredged up and their family histories come to the surface, giving us context for why the land is so important to each of them. It is easy to dismiss Poole’s attachment as primarily materialistic and appreciate Copper’s as authentically spiritual, but in his script Hayden does attempt to give comparable weight to each of them.

Arthur and Maureen occasionally interact, but spend most of their time speaking directly to the audience. Director Patti Shaughnessy makes these shifts as seamless as possible so the asides never feel jarring or disruptive. And it all flows naturally enough, but I did find myself eagerly awaiting the moments when they experienced each other rather than telling us about it.

The play feels generally well-rounded and satisfying—lots of humour, some heartfelt bits, a little excitement in middle with a dramatic stand-off between Copper and a dredger. There isn’t much intensity though. Some intriguing questions are raised about a person’s right to land, but nothing here is really meant to challenge or provoke, which makes it somewhat disconcerting to hear offhand references to Oka and residential schools.

Like Mrs. Poole herself, Cottagers and Indians is quite divorced from ugly realities; it’s a feel-good story and succeeds as such.


Photo of Herbie Barnes and Tracey Hoyt by Cylla von Tiedemann.