It has taken over 25 years for Joseph Dandurand’s Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish to see a stage.
And what a grand stage for a world premiere, as Vancouver’s Axis Theatre Company uses the University of British Columbia’s botanical garden amphitheatre as the location to tell this family-friendly Indigenous fable.
Th’owxiya (pronounced Tho-wox-eeya) is the story of the First Nations goddess who holds the most wonderful foods from around the world in her mouth.
When a kw’at’el (mouse) is caught stealing a piece of cheese, he embarks on a journey of knowledge and forgiveness with the help of two young theqat / spa:th (trees / bears), a sqeweqs (raven), and a Sasq’ets (Sasquatch).
As introduction to the story, six young Kwantlen Nation storytellers give some history of their people, introducing each of the characters and their Indigenous names.
With shades of the Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, Th’owxiya is at first a little dark and malevolent. Director Chris McGregor and his cast of six keep things light though, ensuring even the smallest of audience members will not be frightened.
They are helped immensely by designer Jay Havens’ masks and costumes, which are largely playful and evocative of the animals they portray. Helping to ensure the actor’s expression are visible, in the First Nations tradition the masks sit on top of their heads rather than cover their faces.
The centerpiece of Haven’s set design is the beautiful feast dish carved by Earl Moulton and Don Froese. Carved from a single massive piece of wood, it is a marvelous focal point for much of the action.
Along with kw’at’el’s central quest speaking to themes of honour and friendship, Dandurand takes a deeper dive into environmental stewardship. As the young animals are encouraged to work together, they also learn lessons on not taking too much from the land. Using repetition, Dandurand reinforces many of these concepts for the youngest viewers.
McGregor has assembled a solid ensemble of First Nations performers.
Tapping into her Sasq’et with a luggish charm and playfulness, Chelsea Rose Tucker makes the most of her amusingly broad facial expressions. Taran Kootenhayoo as the trickster sqeweqs, squawks and flits about as if in constant flight.
Merewyn Comeau does double-duty as percussionist on The Hang (a culturally neutral instrument with a similar sound to a steel drum) and as Th’Owxiya. Mitchell Saddleback and Tai Amy Grauman are frisky young spa:th, and Braiden Houle is all-business as kw’at’el.
As a group, the sextet of young actors is obviously having fun with the story, enticing the younger members of the audience into the story. On a couple of occasions the enticement is quite literal, as the younger audience members are invited to be participants.
While definitely helped by a gorgeous summer day in equally gorgeous surroundings, what makes Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish truly unforgettable is in its engaging story steeped in tradition.
Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish by Joseph A Dandurand. Directed by Chris McGregor. An Axis Theatre Company production. On stage at the Roseline Sturdy Amphitheatre at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden (6301 Stadium Rd. Vancouver) on June 24 & 25 and July 1 & 2 at 11am and 1pm. Admittance is free, but registration is required. Visit http://axistheatre.com for more information.