Three Reviews: Confederation and Riel, Scandal and Rebellion and Vimy

by Lynn on July 31, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

Confederation and Riel 1861-1870

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District, Toronto, Ont.

Written and Co-directed by Michael Hollingsworth
Co-directed by Deanne Taylor
Lighting by Andrew Dollar
Costumes by Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill
Wigs by Alice Norton
Sound and additional music by Richard Feren
Props and video drawing by Brad Harley
Music by Brent Snyder
Cast: Kevin Bundy
Greg Campbell
Richard Alan Campbell
Jamie Cavanagh
Richard Clarkin
Kat Letwin
Linda Prystawska
Michaela Washburn

The nefarious goings on in Canadian history around Louis Riel, Confederation and the scandals created by John A. Macdonald get the VideoCabaret treatment and it’s a hoot.

Michael Hollingsworth and co-creator Deanne Taylor created VideoCabaret to tell Canada’s history in a zippy, punchy, irreverent way for folks brought up on TV and rock and roll. The latest segment is the story of Canada and confederation and in two parts.

The Stories:

Part I is Confederation and Riel 1861-1870 and Part II is Scandal and Rebellion, 1871-1885.

These two segments are part of a larger history of Canada called The History of the Village of the Small Huts from its very beginnings right up to modern times.

Confederation and Riel 1861-1870

John A. Macdonald and Georges Etiennes-Cartier, co-premiers of The Canadas, which at that time were Ontario and Quebec. They want more territory and power and use any means to get it.

Louis Riel is a Metis studying for the priesthood. But when he sees that his people and their land in Manitoba are threatened by the Americans and also by Macdonald and company, he forgets his studies to lead his people to defend their land and rights. Riel becomes a formidable leader and spokesperson with the government. Thus he is a threat to Macdonald who uses underhanded means to get rid of Riel.

Scandal and Rebellion 1871-1885.

Macdonald, now Prime Minister, continues to make questionable deals. He woos British Columbia into Confederation by promising them a railway. There’s a scandal regarding contracts for the railway being swapped for campaign contributions. Macdonald is caught in the lie and deposed. Riel is still around and the elected member of Manitoba but is prevented from taking his seat in parliament. Matters escalate and Riel has to flee to Montana for his life. It’s a picture of fortunes that rise and fall as the scandals escalate. As committed and noble his intentions were, it ends badly for Louis Riel. John A. Macdonald doesn’t seem to realize how bad anything is because he’s mainly drinking his days away.

The Productions. VideoCabaret has a particular style in presenting its shows. The action takes place in a black box (like a television) with a few levels to it. Scenes are no more than one minute or less so all the information, tone, attitudes etc. have to be packed in with wit, irony and sarcasm and still tell the story in a way that grabs the audience. Deliberately cheesy music underscores each scene (as in old TV shows) and music plays during the blackouts that separate scenes. The makeup, wigs, costumes and props are exaggerated in design and size. For example, John A. Macdonald’s bottle, from which he guzzles his liquor, is as long as his arm. Each of the eight actors in the cast plays multiple parts. They change costumes, wigs and props off stage in the blink of an eye.

The whole cast is wonderfully accomplished with their own quirks and sensibilities but to give you a taste: Richard Clarkin plays John A. Macdonald with a smirk and a subtle slur to the words because of course John A. was a drunk.

Linda Prystawska is an attentive Lady Agnes Macdonald who tries to take the bottle away from her drunken husband; She also plays a flirty woman on the make, and some male politicians with total believability.

Michaela Washburn plays Louis Riel with a curvy wig and a moustache and is so regal, gentlemanly, and controlled you have nothing but admiration for the character.

While the cast is wonderful the masters of ceremonies are writer Michael Hollingsworth who wrote the cycle of plays and his partner Deanne Taylor who co-directs them. Together they have provided the funniest, best history lesson about this country you will ever have.

Comment. I’ve seen all the components of The History of the Village of the Small Huts configured in various ways and I never get tired of seeing this company because playwright and co-director, Michael Hollingsworth, has such a sharp eye for the focus of a scene and what he wants to convey in it. He sees the mendacity, corruption, arrogance, and dishonesty in the politicians, and uses the sharpest wit to bring that out. Sometimes it’s a subtle reaction from a character to something startling, just as the lights are going down, that adds that final zing. Hollingsworth in his plays is the best chronicler of the story of Canada you will find.

Soulpepper presents VideoCabaret

Plays until August 19, 2017.


At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Vern Thiessen
Directed by Diana Leblanc
Set by Astrid Janson
Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by André du Toit
Sound by John Gzowski
Co-sound designer, Deanna Choi
Cast: Sébastien Bertrand
Andrew Chown
Tim Dowler-Coltman
Wesley French
Christine Horne
TJ Riley

Playwright Vern Thiessen and director Diana Leblanc have created a gripping, moving production about the terrible effects of war, in particular the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Story. In his program note playwright Vern Thiessen says Vimy is not about war. It’s about the relationships of four men, who are a cross-section of Canada, who took part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in WWI. One is a French Canadian, is an aboriginal from Winnipeg, two are friends who are gay but one of them does not acknowledge it. There is a nurse named Claire and her boyfriend Will. I don’t think it’s simplistic for Thiessen to have a representative of various groups of Canada to represent the country’s diversity. It’s a valid choice. And of course at its heart Vimy is about the war and what it does to young men and women who just want to do right by their country.

The Production. Four men lay in a hospital with their various injuries, both physical and mental from the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Jean-Pau Bert (Sébastien Bertrand) is shattered with shell-shock. He’s been gassed. Initially he doesn’t speak, but when he is shown kindness by a nurse named Clare (Christine Horne) he begins to speak to her, in French, which eventually segues to English. Mike (Wesley French) is from the First Nations. He’s been gassed and his breathing is terribly affected. He feels slighted by the rest of the men and seems to be ready for a fight if he’s looked at strangely. Will (JT Riley) has been shot up. Sid (Tim Dowler-Coltman) has also been shot up. His eyes are covered to protect them from further damage. Sid knows Will but Will ignores him. They both are suppressing a secret that is heartbreaking.

Clare is their Canadian nurse and Laurie (Andrew Chown) is her Canadian boyfriend who enlists.

We learn of their histories, how they are coping, how they hope to be shipped home soon because of their wounds. They talk of their injuries and what happened. The play flits back and forth in time from before some joined up to the present, but we are never in doubt as to where we are.

Gradually Vern Thiessen leads up to what led them to that hospital, The Battle of Vimy Ridge and the horrible odds that were against these young men when they were ordered to go to the top and take it. The men count down the hours to the beginning of the battle.

It is very gripping playwriting because establishing their stories is more important than the battle, which happens in the last quarter of the play.

The cast is exemplary. Relationships are created and developed with meticulous attention to detail. Sébastien Bertrand, as Jean-Paul Bert, is skittish, haunted and almost paralyzed with the shock of the war. As Sid, Tim Dowler-Coltman is a strapping man with a sense of the sensitivity of Sid. Sid longs for Will’s friendship but is rebuffed. But in their earlier time there is a tenderness to their friendship. Will hides a secret as Sid does, but Will struggles with his secret. He knows he is being cruel; he realizes the cost too late. As Will, JT Riley infuses his characterization with the subtlest of details. There is nothing cut and dried in this macho performance. As Laurie, Andrew Chown is all bravado and swagger to show off to Clare, his girlfriend. Christine Horne plays Clare with professionalism to try and hide how she knows how damaged these men are, and that some will not be going home. Her reaction to some bad news squeezes the heart.

Diana Leblanc directed this wonderful production with the intent of showing the stark, primitive surroundings these men had to cope with and the effect on them. Their lives in the hospital are far away to some extent from the noise and terror of the war. But there is always a hint of the awful outside and the war in this thoughtful production. Initially we hear the delicate tapping of the rain on the roof. Much is made of the resulting mud, in which a man could drown in both the rain and the mud. Later when the rain subsides, we hear birds. It’s almost as if one can’t give over to the peace of the quiet. One is always waiting for the blast of a bomb.

The set by Astrid Janson has the men in the hospital sleeping on slabs of wood, not beds, to show how everything in their lives is uncomfortable. A mist hangs in the air suggesting constant rain or gas floating to suffocate them. Shannon Lea Doyle’s costumes are stuffy soldier’s uniforms, worn boots, dirty socks. Clare’s uniform is bloody from tending to wounded soldiers. André du Toit’s lighting is eerie, constantly dark and oppressive to the men who are wounded.

The battle of Vimy Ridge is gripping as it gradually builds and builds in intensity to the inevitable.

Comment. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was more than 100 years ago. Does it have relevance to us today? On the basis of the play and this stunning production, I say definitely yes. Thiessen’s play has put us in the world of the story, of war, talking about the toll it took on these young men and women. This is a war these men thought was justified. They were defending freedom for their country and felt it their duty to sign up.

They suffered more with that war than any other since because it was so primitive and the conditions were hideous: the mud and rain could kill you; there was gas and had little protection from it; they were outnumbered but were still sent in to fight.

On viewing Vimy you are put in that terrible world even though it is far and away from ours and because we can understand the realities of all those characters, I think that makes it relevant.

In a way, it’s not about war as Thiessen says, but about the relationships these men had to each other; the slights they endured, the loneliness, the realization that they were pawns; that war was futile and brutal. You feel what these people experienced because you are put in that world momentarily.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Plays until Aug. 5, 2017.

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