Review: ‘The Herd’ is a bluntly honest, magnificently-designed production

(left to right) Deneh'Cho Thompson, Danny Knight, Kathleen MacLean, Tracey Nepinak, and Amanda Trapp feature in Persephone Theatre's 'The Herd,' running until Feb. 26, 2023. (PHOTO: Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards)

A striking set and an energized cast brought Saskatchewan playwright Kenneth T. Williams’ home-grown script to wonderful life Friday night at Persephone Theatre.

The Herd is not a story of heroes and villains, of everyone getting their just rewards (or just desserts). Instead, it’s a show that makes you stop and think on all the questions you’ve never felt comfortable answering — or even trying to ask — about Indigenous traditions and culture in the modern world.

The show centres on a First Nation in Saskatchewan taking care of a commercial bison herd they purchased. When two white bison calves are born, a geneticist from the community (Kathleen MacLean) does her best to keep the herd safe from the reckless mob excited for the spectacle and the European Union funders looking to cash in, while balancing her own beliefs and morals against the traditions of her community which consider the white calves a prophetic portent.

The Herd has little in the way of nuance, but bluntness isn’t always the worst thing. None of the characters are ever afraid to express how they feel. But once you get your brain around the lack of subtlety in the dialogue, the show opens up into an honest and direct conversation.

It was an impressive performance from the five-person cast, who brought their characters to life with energy and aplomb. Kathleen MacLean’s turn as Vanessa Brokenhorn, the struggling geneticist responsible for the bison herd was a delight to watch, as she portrayed the character with grace and honesty. Danny Knight, who plays Chief Michael “Baby Pete” Brokenhorn — Vanessa’s brother — showed excellent range as he went from the over-excited jokester to a man fed up with the choices laid before him.

And some kudos should be given to Tracey Nepinak as the Brokenhorn’s aunt Sheila. Nepinak’s grounded performance helped draw the audience back to the core messages of the show, bringing an air of realism to the goings-on around the bison calves.

One of the best parts of this script is that it gave everyone their moments. Whether it was MacLean as Vanessa out amongst the bison she knows so well, or Deneh’Cho Thompson’s rising social media star Coyote Jackson fighting with the Irish EU representative Aislinn (Amanda Trapp) over who knows what’s best for a herd neither of them have any right to, every performer had their own chance to shine in tandem with the ensemble.

Let’s talk briefly about the absolutely gorgeous set. Set designer Omanie Elias, lighting designer Ajay Badoni, and projection designer Judith Schulz all truly outdid themselves with this show. A silhouette of a massive bison, overlaid with videos or lighting effects perfectly set the stage — no pun intended — for the play (the stars in the night sky were a particularly nice touch). Coupled with the clever sound design of Cory Dallas Standing, and it’s a pretty stunning setting.

The Herd does something that many shows purport to want but few actually pull off: it makes you think. It’s here where that aforementioned directness becomes a strong point in the show’s favour. The nuance is limited, there is little fancy phrasing, and instead we are left with raw and honest people addressing difficult questions about identity, colonization, Indigenous tradition, and more.

And by being so unabashedly straightforward, those questions fall quickly to the audience. When posed some challenging queries — from what to do with the white bison calves, to the crowds of ravenous fans fighting to get a peek, to broader questions of morality in the face of the unknown — there is a repeated response from the characters of “that’s not for me to decide.”

It’s a powerful and poignant statement against the backdrop of the show’s many tough conversations, and it turns those conversations directly to the people watching.

It’s also why the ending arrives with a thud. The show kindled such an extremely slow burn of a story that really focused on character development and asking questions, the final scene (without sharing any spoilers) doesn’t fit with the energy of the rest of show. It’s a sudden and jarring climax that — while certainly not invalidating any of the show’s well-explored themes — seemed out-of-place.

Kenneth T. Williams did a masterful job of creating a truly thought-provoking script, regardless of the final minutes. The Herd is definitely worth seeing, bringing both humour and sincerity to important conversations around Indigenous culture and tradition in the modern era.

The Herd runs at Persephone Theatre until Feb. 26, 2023. Tickets can be found online at persephonetheatre.org.

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