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Salmon Row tells epic fish tale

History of mighty Fraser River enchants


At Britannia Heritage Shipyard in Steveston until Aug. 28

Reviewed by Jo Ledingham

Throughout Salmon Row, "The fish are in the river" is a recurring line and it's always spoken with excitement, urgency and a sense of wonder. And it's no wonder: when the salmon flood up the mighty, muddy Fraser River, it's time, as a fisherman will tell you, to "fish or cut bait." The fish spend only a short time in the river, tenaciously returning to spawn in the gravel of upcountry rivers and streams before dying. It's a narrow window of opportunity for fish and fishermen.

There's so much magic in this Mortal Coil production written by Nicola Harwood and directed by Peter Hall. But the most palpable pleasure is watching the play from rough bleachers that are only feet away from the Fraser as it laps the bulrushes along the shoreline. And the fish are, indeed, right now in the river--not the amazing return of 2010 but still numbering in the millions.

One can almost imagine the fish listening in the shadows as the story of fish and fishermen, boats and boat builders, and cannery owners and cannery workers is told with Mortal Coil's trademark music, masks, stiltwalkers and dance.

Salmon Row (with costumes from homespun and rustic to the fantastic by Barbara Clayden, and original music by Tobin Stokes) is a moveable feast on the grassy fields and planked boardwalks of the old Britannia Shipyard. Leaving the westernmost part of the property with its old, weathered buildings, we follow musicians and performers east to several other settings: outside the old Phoenix Cannery, outside Hong Wo's store, on a little wooden bridge and ending up in the garden of the boatbuilding Murakami family.

The story is epic, going back to 1898 when Marcus Elder, owner of the thriving Phoenix Cannery, was paying the fishermen six cents per fish. Chinese, Japanese, First Nations and new immigrants were prepared to fish until they dropped while their wives and daughters cleaned, scraped and canned the catch. There's almost too much story to tell. But throughout all the stories--including fire that ravaged the cannery, racial conflict, drinking and gambling, the blockage of the river in 1913 by CNR, various Government of Canada edicts, and the invention of The Iron Chink--one big story emerges. With respect for the river and attention to the stories of the past, the Fraser and its prodigious bounty, can survive.

Director Hall blends professional actors (including Alvin Sanders as the money-grubbing cannery owner; Patrick Keating, Tetsuro Shigematsu, Sam Bob, Quelemia Sparrow and Donna Yamamoto) with non-professionals--including children--in this enchanting re-telling of the colourful history of the Fraser's Cannery Row. Set designer Yvan Morissette nestles the action naturally into the site while lighting designer Gerald King takes advantage of the setting sun before switching on the lights. Tim Matheson projects archival photos against the old exterior cannery walls, adding a sense of actual history to the dramatization. The play is set in motion by the T'skaya (Coastal Wolf Pack) Dancers from the Musqueam First Nation on whose ancestral land the canneries and shipyards (both retired) are situated.

Salmon Row is wondrous, often funny and magical but the playwright's aim is serious; she hopes audiences will be "inspired to rescue what is left of our natural resources, rehabilitate our relationship to our first peoples and welcome all immigrants who make this place home." It's entertainment for the whole family. Admission is by donation but the message is priceless: take care of the river. The fish are there right now, preparing for their epic journey. They just might be listening, fins--or fingers--crossed.

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