Short Reviews: 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt and Treasure Island

by Lynn on June 19, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on—the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Rick Salutin with Theatre Passe Muraille
Directed by Philip Akin
Designed by Rachel Forbes
Lighting by Steve Lucas
Music direction by John-Luke Addison
Cast: Donna Belleville
Sharry Flett
Jonah McIntosh
Marla McLean
Ric Reid
Cherissa Richards
Travis Seetoo
Jeremiah Sparks

A production that is valiant in its creativity but the play has passed it’s ‘best by’ date.

The Story. This being the sesquicentennial of Canada, I can appreciate why artistic director, Tim Carroll chose this one. It’s a play about the revolt of farmers in Upper Canada against British rule and the corruption of the government in place with its arbitrary rules. People cleared land and farmed it thinking that since they did the work, the land was theirs. Nope. They found that they could be thrown off the land by corrupt people in power who now wanted a lot of money for the land these people had cleared and worked.

The story is made up of various episodes pertaining to many and various participants. Eventually the farmers got fed up and were organized to rebel by William Lyon MacKenzie. The rebellion was the beginning of Confederation.

The Production. The play was created in the early 1970s by the Theatre Passe Muraille cast. They improvised during the day and what they settled on was then written down by playwright/historian Rick Salutin. Salutin was and is deeply interested in politics and could put things in historical context.

The production at the Shaw Festival is full of creativity and invention because of its director Philip Akin and the wonderful cast of eight who play all the parts regardless of gender and ethnicity.

Rachel Forbes’ set is simple with a grouping of logs that form a winding ramp with stumps around the ramp. A cast of eight play all the parts. Akin wanted to shake things up so women play men and there is a mash-up of genders.

He calls it “a rich, percolating stew of a play….I wanted to explore it without regard to race, gender or even culture…I wanted …to flip our expectations of what we would normally consider a historical play to be.” Very honourable.

Its cast of eight is terrific. Akin has them create the percussive sound and movement through clapping and tapping themselves on arms and legs etc. There is a throb and pulse to the movement of this wonderful ensemble.

Since the play was initially improvised characterization is not a strong point in the text. But this is a gifted cast and they bring their humanity and humanness to the play and their characters. Ric Reid plays William Lyon MacKenzie with focus, a clear eye and a bit of an edge. He’s a wonderful actor. There is a scene between a mail order bride and the man she will marry. The shy bride is played by Sharry Flett. Her equally stoical, awkward groom is played by Marla McLean. These two women do wonders in creating the halting, unsure relationship between this woman and man. Later the man has to go to fight and we see the love that has grown between the two. It is beautifully acted and you just ache with their heart-ache at having to part.

Comment. Still, while I can appreciate why Tim Carroll chose 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, I think it’s a really odd choice for the Shaw Festival. The play opened in 1973 at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto when it was on Trinity Square. The play was then called 1837.

The next year it was extensively revised and renamed 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt “to emphasize the rebellion’s rural roots. It had several professional tours, remounts and other productions in the 1970s.” Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to any productions after the 1970s.

The show’s initial strength was the improvisations. But on the page, it’s just dull. The production at the Shaw Festival is valiant in its creativity, but at its basic level the play is a bunch of facts and endless lists of characters without much development or context so we don’t know who they are really.

There is a long speech by a character who itemizes the many and various people and their relatives who run the government. It’s instantly clear they are all corrupt but the speech goes on and on with more and more names piled into the speech so that your head is swimming with information when we got the point already. Later on when MacKenzie is organizing the farmers things get lively, but it’s a hard slog until then.

Ok it chronicles the country’s beginning but that doesn’t mean the play should be revived if it’s past its best by date. Since the 1970s our political theatre such as it is has come a long way. I think of the sharp, spare, satiric aim of VideoCabaret that skewers and illuminates the same time period and it engages us at all times. I think choosing 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt is unfortunate, valiant effort notwithstanding. I can’t even imagine what American visitors to the Shaw Festival will make of this.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Opened: May 27, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 8, 2017.
Cast: 8; 4 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, approx..

Treasure Island.

At the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Robert Louis Stevenson
Adapted by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Set by Douglas Paraschuk
Costumes by Charlotte Dean
Lighting by Kevin Fraser
Composed and sound by Debashis Sinha
Projections by Nick Bottomley
Cast: Thomas Mitchell Barnet
Juan Chioran
Sarah Dodd
Randy Hughson
Katelyn McCulloch
Gordon Patrick White
And others.

It’s the Robert Louis Stevenson classic about pirates, a treasure map, buried treasure, a one-legged pirate and his parrot. Director Mitchell Cushman puts everything in this production except perhaps the kitchen sink.

The Story. When the audience files in we get a program of course, but all kids get a treasure map as well. Kids are invited on stage to look through a telescope by a man in sailing costume/pirate? To look and find the man with the one leg named Long John Silver.

The Production. Nicolas Billon adapted the play from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. Mitchell Cushman directs it. When the show begins a father is reading a bedtime story to his son, James, about pirates etc. His sister Bennett is asleep in the bunk above. When James is tucked in, he of course dreams of the pirates and Long John Silver and the treasure map etc. and is transported to that land and all the attendant adventures.

Nick Bottomley’s projections are magical. Images are projected on the curtain in a kind of projection I’ve never seen before. Images seem to appear as if from water and just as quickly, disappear.

James the young boy becomes Jim Hawkins in the Treasure Island adventure—Thomas Mitchell Barnet plays him with sweet innocence and energetic curiosity. Juan Chioran plays James’ caring dad as well as a very commanding, compassionate Long John Silver.
There is a lovely bond between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. So there is a bond both in real life and in the fantasy story between Jim/James and Long John Silver/Dad.

The character of Ben Gunn is played by Katelyn McCulloch, who is a master aerialist, who does all her tricks suspended above the stage using swaths of silk. One is tempted to just watch her do tricks and not listen to what she is saying. Don’t give in to temptation.

There is a lot of playing to the audience and the kids get right into it. Jim Hawkins is looking for a character who is behind him and of course asks the audience if they have seen this character. The audience steps up and yells: “HE’S BEHIND YOU!” And this is where Jim gets deaf. “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” To which the kids scream more and are in earnest. I am tempted to stand up and yell something inappropriate: “He’s behind you, you goofball, turn around and let’s get going with the story, eh, the meter’s ticking!”

Comment. Kids are a tough audience and for the most part I thought the production pulled off the feat of telling the story, with lots of breathless activity. But I do have to wonder why the cast, for the most part, shout everything. Kids hate to be shouted at. Stop it! We’re in the room! We hear you. Can you turn it down, please?

There is a bit at the end when James comes back to the real world when he’s talking to his mother, that comes as a surprise and I don’t think that revelation is developed enough. I won’t give it away, but more information is needed to fill the gap.

But as I said, Treasure Island is totally for kids and I think they will love it.

Presented by the Stratford Festival

Opened: June 3, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 22, 2017.
Cast: 20: 12 men, 8 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx..

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