by Lynn on November 18, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

These reviews aired on Friday, November 18, 2011 on CIUT 89.5 FM between 9 am and 10 am: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MACKENZIE KING at The Cameron House and THE CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC at the Tarragon Theatre. Damon Scheffer is the host of the as yet,no name show.


1) It’s Friday morning and it’s time for some theatre talk. Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer, is here to tell us what she’s been up to.

Hi Lynn.

What are you going to talk about this week?

Two plays dealing with historical figures.

THE LIFE AND TIMES of MACKENZIE KING is of course about the longest running Prime Minister in Canadian history.

His first term was in the 1920s.

The second play is THE CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC and is about Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish pediatrician.

In 1939 he was running an orphanage in Warsaw, which he created years before. And by 1942 the orphanage was moved to inside the Warsaw Ghetto and eventually all the children and Korczak were taken to a concentration camp and never heard of again.

So two plays dealing with historic events.



I don’t think I’m alone in saying that when you mention Canadian history, people’s eyes glaze over.


Not in this case.

In this case we have a powerful force that takes Canadian history and turns it on its ear, showing the back stabbing shenanigans, the nefarious doings, the political intrigue, and generally illuminating the seriously farcical, satiric folly known as the history of Canada.

And that powerful force is a theatre company called VideoCabaret.

The co-artistic directors, Michael Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor, have created a type of theatre for people raised on rock and roll and television.

The playing area is a black box. Costumes and wigs are exaggerated. The acting style is heightened, almost over-played Each scene is no longer than a minute sometimes as short as 30 seconds. Which means that the writing is spare and precise.

Every gesture, every glance means something. It’s almost like watching a close-up on television. The result is Canadian history as you have never seen or heard it before.


3) OK how does this work with THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MACKENZIE KING?


This play is part of a huge cycle of plays that Hollingsworth has written called THE HISTORY OF THE VILLAGE OF THE SMALL HUTS of which THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MACKENZINE KING is just one part.

The Village of the small huts is really Canada.

The play starts just after WWI.

It’s an uproarious look at the rough and tumble life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, back room politics and the effect on the common Canadian in the early 20s and 30s.

There is a huge cast of characters beginning with William Lyon Mackenzie King who is desperate to be Prime Minister. And he gets his wish. He was Prime Minister off an on for 22 years.

Using wiliness, political smarts and the occasional séance, Mackenzie King ruled.

He depended heavily on his mother for advice—even when she was dead.

Seeing how politicians try to outmaneuver around each other is part of the biting humour of the piece. Hollingsworth also shows the crushing effect of the Depression on the common man that is quite moving.


4) What is the production like if it tries to emulate television?


As I said, scenes are very short and precise. The thought or political revelation gets right to the point quickly.

Six actors play about 60 characters and the occasional animal. And each actor is dandy, doing terrific work.

There is a lot of quick change from suits to dresses to wigs to voice and accent. You are never in doubt as to what character an actor is playing.

Hollingsworth also directs and he has such a sharp eye for the telling detail, and a keen sense of how a side-long look can be hilarious or informative.

I think this is one of the best productions in the whole series, and they all are wonderful. Very funny and terribly moving.

It is the most entertaining, perceptive, witty history lesson you wish you had in high school.

And of course I and a huge group of fans are not the only one that see VideoCabaret’s brilliance.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is also charmed. Because next summer VideoCabaret will be bringing their play THE WAR OF 1812 to the Stratford Festival, in a specially made small black box space.

Should be interesting.


5) And now for something completely different, THE CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC at Tarragon Theatre.

Tell us about that.


It’s written by celebrated young playwright, Hannah Moscovitch.

She’s written THE RUSSIAN PLAYS, ESSAY, and EAST OF BERLIN in which a young man realizes that his father was in the SS during the WWII (giving new meaning to “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”)

Her stories deal with substantial subjects.

THE CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC certainly deals with a weighty subject.

This is about Janusz Korczak, a noted pediatrician and children’s champion, and his struggles to maintain the orphanage he created in Warsaw between 1939 to 1942.

He created a world in which the children would govern themselves and called it the Children’s Republic…they had their own court system, their own governing body, even a newspaper. Respecting the child and giving them confidence and support was everything to him.

The play is also about his struggles with the many and different problems these children posed. They were basically street kids. One would rather fight than talk and explain. Many were silent and didn’t want to talk.

Korczak is aided by his no-nonsense partner Stefa. Korczak and Stefa are the only historic characters in the play. The rest are created from Moscovitch’s imagination.


6) Celebrated playwright, a play that’s set in difficult times—does it work?


No, I’m sad to say.

I found THE CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC a real disappointment.

Moscovitch sites several books as references in her research, eight at least were either written by or were about Korczak. Yet I didn’t get a sense from the play about the guy who would have garnered such notoriety. Sure we know he started an orphanage—which is hugely impressive, and he was a caring doctor. But I shouldn’t have to Google him for information because the play seems so skimpy.

He was a celebrated children’s book author. That could have saved him, I find on Google, in one instance-when a Nazi guard recognized him and offered to save him and he refused.

The children’s court is referred to in one scene, but surely we should know this is in fact part of his Children’s Republic.

When Moskovitch wasn’t quoting Korczak I found her writing so spare and jarring it was almost like listening to a David Mamet play with half sentences and stammering, inarticulate characters.

Often characters would question a child and get no answer but a shrug.

More questions.


Then from no where the adult would conclude the answer, “Oh the dead person in your drawing was your father?”

Makes no sense. Very Frustrating and disappointing when you consider who wrote it.


7) Does the production make up for your disappointment in the writing?



As Korczak, Peter Hutt is an understated but obviously committed man to his cause and these children. He knows what these kids went through and how to earn their trust. It’s all there in this open-hearted performance.

As Stefa, Kelli Fox is a master of the small gesture that speaks volumes. Stefa is no nonsense; very matter of fact, but when a kid arrives, scared and silent, and is coaxed into playing her violin, Fox reacts by quickly putting her hand to her mouth to show how moved Stefa is with the kid’s talent. It gets tricky when you have young teens as actors in a play.

I wish Katie Frances Cohen as Mettye would slow down her delivery and not drop the end of her sentences.

I wish Mark Correia as Israel would speak clearly and not mumble. And he shrugged his shoulders so often and quickly when Israel didn’t know an answer, I thought he had a nervous tick.

It’s directed by Alisa Palmer who deals as well as she can with a play with many scene changes….it almost seems like the play is one long scene change.

I liked the idea of the date 1938 being written in chalk on the floor, and later 1942. The back wall of the set is made of brown paper so that to create the sense of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, the children write on the wall telling us where they are—better lighting please so we can read it—then they partially tear down the paper resulting in holes in the wall. It’s a fabulous way to create the sense of a ruined building.

So there are touches here and there that are impressive about THE CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC, but I think Moscovitch should give the play another go to flesh out what is lacking.


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, or Theatre Critic and Passionate Playgoer.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MACKENZIE KING plays at the Cameron House through December 11.

THE CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC plays at Tarragon Theatre until December 18.

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