Presented by The Uncommon Folk Collective
A shy bear and a restless young woman meet in the woods. What draws them together? What sets them apart? These are the questions at the heart of Ursa: A Folk Musical, presented by The Uncommon Folk Collective for the Next Stage Festival.
The performers are in flannel and corduroy, their instruments snuggled up against an armchair, lamps and a hung-up quilt. It’s very cosy, like a cottage. You can almost smell the musty air. It invokes, quite clearly, the narrator’s eccentric grandmother who, he tells us, wrote the story we are about to hear.
The young woman, Ursa, runs away from her family and town to find adventure in the forest. There, she meets the bear who lives in a cave by himself, hidden from other bears and collecting discarded human items like books and a snowshoe.
They find solace in each other’s company before his need to hibernate causes a rift between them. It is here that the story seems to be about the nature of relationships and the difficulties of adaptation and compromise. But then we are told otherwise—quite explicitly.
The story’s purpose is hammered home at the end when the narrator tells us his grandmother’s intention, what each of these characters represent. This severely undermines its potential. I felt robbed of the chance to unpack the elements of this fable for myself.
Jake Schindler and Sam Boer’s writing is whimsical and evocative, conjuring a vivid world of gravel roads and pine needles in dew. Belinda Corpuz as Ursa and Stephen Ingram’s bear have ample warmth and charisma. I was spellbound up to and during their meeting. It’s when the story delves into conflict that it starts to feel muddled and bland.
The vague concept of otherness is the core of these characters’ identities. They embrace it whole-heartedly. But the circumstantial specifics are never revealed. Otherness can be an easily relatable experience, of course, but the stories that traffic in universal feelings still need to be grounded in tangible details. I find it hard to invest in the cliche of feeling different.
This production hits home with its rich textures and persuasive atmosphere. And I can dig high-concept, thematic narratives that fixate on the interior life of characters rather than plot. The trouble is I don’t find Ursa and the bear compelling enough to be in their heads for over an hour. Especially when the finale removes so much of their allegorical mystique.