Muskrat Dreams Kept Me Up Last Night

In explaining NL’s biggest boondoggle in under an hour—with clarity, humour, and puppets—Tara Manuel has accomplished a real theatrical feat.

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Sure: environmentally-themed theatre can come off as preachy or dull, and it’s understandable if some audience members might be wary of this genre. Still—I’ve watched some haunting theatre pieces about environmental disasters where actors brought catastrophe to life. Something about the stage created a sense of intimacy and participation. Theatre made a far-off thing seem real and immediate.

If I had a complaint about the genre (environmentally-themed theatre), it would be that a) they are not usually comedies, and b) they don’t feature puppets. These might seem like silly grievances, but I’m serious. I don’t understand why there aren’t more comedic pieces with environmental themes—laughing is something we all experience. Comedy is an excellent medium for a message. It makes tough topics palatable. 

Plus, puppets are just the best. Performers need technical skills, craftsmanship, and command over their voices. They need a sense of timing and play; there’s something cheeky about a puppet.

Enter Tara Manuel’s Muskrat Dreams: A Love Story, which might be the first-ever comedic puppet show to revolve around a disastrous hydroelectricity project. This is a piece of theatre that looms large. You have to see it. 

There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start with the set.

The set is sparse but smart. 

There’s a flipchart in the left-hand corner—a music stand just in front of that. In the center of the stage, we see a table. The table is heaped with small puppets—some of which are instantly recognizable. I can see a small Joey Smallwood from my seat. There’s a shadow theatre in the table’s center and a miniature tub wrapped in headlines from the Western Star on the right. Behind the table, there’s a two-level projection.

“The choice to split the projections was made out of necessity,” director Michael Waller explains. “The screen is so big that the cameras pick up the screen’s image. This could be seen as a problem, but I think of it as a feature; it gives a sense of non-reality to the puppet sequences—it adds a sense of the surreal. Plus, I think it looks cool.”

He’s right. It does look cool. The projections are haunting, and they screw up your sense of time. The sound (designed by both Manuel and Waller) also creates an eerie effect. There are lilting piano pieces scattered throughout, but the slow dripping of water resonates most. 

The puppets in this play were designed by Michael Rigler, Krista Van Nostrand, Donna Thistle, Brigit Howe, Alli Johnston, Ian Locke, and Roseanne Hicks. The puppets are familiar characters—audience members will meet a little Andrew Furey, two separate Danny Williams, Kathy Dunderdale, several journalists (shout-out to The Indy’s Justin Brake), several land protectors, Ed Martin (who infuriates me even in puppet form), and some citizen bloggers that raised concerns in earlier stages of the disaster that is Muskrat Falls. 

Some of the non-human cast of Muskrat Dreams. Photo by Ashley Harding.

The two most jarring puppets are the Joey Smallwood puppet (created by Michael Rigler) and the Nalcor puppet. Much like his real-life inspiration, the Joey puppet is small—a few inches high at most—but he manages to command the stage. I couldn’t look away. It’s a remarkable feat of puppetry, to somehow make this small puppet so big.

The second puppet is Nalcor. It’s a faceless, horrifying nightmarish thing. Tara Manuel designed this one herself from a clay sculpt she made on Dark Cove Beach in the Bay of Islands, and was inspired by the idea of a familiar face that would represent the universal corporate.

Finally, before I delve into the play’s subject, I need to compliment the lighting design. Jamie Skidmore is responsible, so the beautiful lighting is not a surprise. There’s a blue hue cast onto the center table, and dark shadows are everywhere. Everything feels isolated. There’s also a shadow theatre, and the moments it’s used are some of the most impactful moments. 

In an hour (or maybe just over), Tara Manuel unpacks Muskrat Falls. It’s a disaster story about loss, pollution, exploitation, and deceit—but one she manages to tell with humour and warmth, and even empathy. She explains how she felt when she first read the “Muskrat Falls: A Misguided Project” Commission of Inquiry report. How enraged she became. She tells us how she began studying Political Science and taking courses from Memorial University so she could learn about the systems that created this monster project.

Next, she takes us on a journey that begins with Joey Smallwood. Manuel describes how Smallwood was obsessed with power and projects, and industry. We learn about the Lower Churchill, the methylmercury fall-out of that megaproject, and how one man’s obsession with industry became a fever that spread amongst the following generations. She breaks down the Danny Williams government and the Orwellian language he used to keep the public onside. She explains how Kathy Dunderdale kept the ball rolling—and how a few stalwart journalists and citizens questioned the project. 

There’s a moment when she uses the shadow theatre to explain how Muskrat Falls’ infrastructure should (in theory) work: it’s educational, interesting, and gorgeous. Manuel explores most of the problems involved with Muskrat Falls: how indigenous communities weren’t consulted, how the waters were contaminated, how Nalcor lied and lied and lied, how the major contractor declared bankruptcy, and how greenwashing the language surrounding a massive hydro project led to so much confusion.

She finishes with a warning, and pleads with the audience to pay attention. Gull Island is around the corner, she says, and we need to start learning from our mistakes.

Tara Manuel performing Muskrat Dreams at the LSPU Hall. Photo by Ashley Harding.

What Manuel has done here is a real feat. It is impressive to explain the province’s most serious boondoggle in an hour while making it funny, symbolic, poignant, and digestible. 

Despite this, I want to make a few comments about the work. First: from my vantage point, I had trouble seeing the flipchart. Sure, it’s a minor complaint, but it’s not especially accessible, and it’s an easy fix.

The other observation is that Manuel does a fantastic job of highlighting the work of the land protectors and how methylmercury will impact the traditional foodways of the Indigenous community, but continually refers to Newfoundland and Labrador as ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’ (rather than employing any Indigenous place names). I think that’s interesting and worthy of discussion.

Besides these notes, I can’t stop thinking about Muskrat Dreams. I’ve read articles, the inquiry, and books about Muskrat Falls. But Manuel made it personal—she made it real. 

Please go see it.

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