by Lynn on May 11, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at VideoCabaret, 10 Busy St. Toronto, Ont. until June 5, 2022.

Written by Michael Hollingsworth

Directed by Mac Fyfe and Michael Hollingsworth

Costumes by Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill

Lighting by Andrew Dollar

Sound and score by Richard Feren

Wig designed by Alice Norton

Props designed by Shadowland

Projection design by Maxim Bortnowski

Cast: Aurora Browne

Valerie Buhagiar

Greg Campbell

Richard Alan Campbell

Richard Clarkin

Kimwun Perehinec

Cliff Saunders

Canadian history given the VideoCabaret treatment, meaning it’s sharp, irreverent, pointed, dark and very funny. Yes and we all lament that history isn’t taught as entertainingly as this in school.

Story and performance. The beauty of a VideoCabaret show is that you can’t really separate the story from the way it’s performed. When Michael Hollingsworth and his late (great) co-founder Deanne Taylor created VideoCabaret in 1976 they wanted to combine the world of video (projections, newsreels, tv. etc.) and the irreverent world of cabaret—live performance. The productions are performed in a ‘black box’ of a stage with various levels in it. Scenes are no more than one minute long and are accompanied by heightened, ‘cheesy’ music for melodramatic effect. Lighting is bright against the black background and often characters enter and exit a cone of light for their scenes. Costumes, wigs, props and make-up is exaggerated for full effect.

The production of The Cold War – Part 1 begins in 1945 with a newsreel showing the dropping of the atomic bomb on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, ending the war. It then segues to the live performance of women who built the tanks, guns and ammunition in the factories while the men were away, fighting. The women were proud of their contributions. Then the announcement came that the war was over (cheers); their men were coming home (more cheers), and thanks for all the hard work but you can go back to being housewives again cause the men will be taking over the jobs (looks of disappointment and confusion out to the audience). Writer, Michael Hollingsworth always finds the darkness in a situation and deals with it with a barb of humour.

What follows are scenes that deal with the politics and the nasty backroom deals that cheat the opponent out of elections, or involve graft to get pipelines built that disadvantages Canada but always gives an advantage to the United States. There are scenes involving Russian spy Igor Gouzenko (Richard Alan Campbell), Mackenzie King (Cliff Saunders), a slippery wimp of a Prime Minister, the blustery but endearing John Diefenbaker (Richard Clarkin), some duplicitous psychological experimentation on unsuspecting souls using damaging drugs that turned them into ‘zombies,’ and politically charged events such as the Suez Canal.

Writer, Michael Hollingsworth distills the huge amount of history of Canada in this Cold War Period and finds the nasty truth and the cutting joke that illuminates it all. The Cold War-Part I is co-directed by Mac Fyfe and Michael Hollingsworth with the requisite attention to detail that packs each short scene with nuance. At the last moment of a scene, a character looks out at the audience, gives a sly smile or a frown of doubt or look that adds irony to the proceedings and puts a different spin on the meaning. It is all a cohesive piece. If there is a quibble it’s that the pace lags a bit in some scenes that deal with exposition.

As always, the costumes by Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill are properly overstated, appropriately garish and beautifully express the personality of the characters. For example, the boxy jacket of Zubutin, (a Russian military man) with pointy shoulders, laden with medals says everything about this arrogant, condescending character whose clothes speak to his power. Added to that is Richard Clarkin’s sneer as Zubutin and smarmy delivery and you have perfection. Andrew Dollar’s stark lighting adds to the atmosphere and intrigue. Alice Norton’s wig designs are explosions of curls, marcelled waves, flips and exaggerated swoops, again to illuminate characters. Cliff Saunders as various characters manages to move his wig with a shift of his forehead for hilarious results. Richard Feren’s sound and score captures the melodramatic nature of the enterprise and focuses attention to moments of importance and humour. The exaggerated, oversized props of Shadowland, be it Mackenzie King’s twitchy-red-tongued-dog, or Roosevelt’s elongated cigarette holder, or the large vials of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s mind destroying drugs, conjures images that enhances each scene.

The acting company is exemplary. They each play many characters and every one is clear, distinct, and if playing a real person, captures that person to perfection. It’s impossible to pick one example but: Aurora Browne makes us squirm when she plays Mary Muffet in a dastardly mind-bending experiment; Valerie Buhagiar is sultry and dangerous as Natasha, a Russian spy; Greg Campbell as Tom Muffet, is the stereotypical husband who wants to be served dinner immediately when he gets home—we love to hate this guy; Richard Alan Campbell is a watchful Igor Gouzenko; Richard Clarkin nails Diefenbaker from his toothy smile to his puffed up self; Kimwun Perehinec is whiny and wonderfully annoying as the child Nancy Muffet and Cliff Saunders is a mass of twitches and business as the easy to manipulate Mackenzie King and the jovial Lester Pearson among others. All wonderful work.

This is the first performance of VideoCabaret since the pandemic closed the theatre and since the death of co-founder Deanne Taylor who died in Dec. 2020. Her spirit is all over that building. After the company bow, Greg Campbell introduced a tribute to Ms Taylor. It was a silent video/home movie of a young girl in a dress interacting with an older man while the credits of the evening rolled over the video. For those who knew Deanne Taylor, the face of the young girl was unmistakably a young Deanne Taylor. For those who didn’t know her they would have been mystified. I think this video was too ‘insider-information’ and not helpful in its intent. And you couldn’t read the credits because the writing was light scrolling over a light background. It would have been better to scroll the credits on the black wall beside the video.

And what better tribute to Deanne Taylor than just to project on the wall her beguiling picture (that’s on the inside of the program) underneath which would be the dates of her birth and death and that she was the co-founder of VideoCabaret. The attempt at a tribute to Deanne Taylor with that video was a missed opportunity.

However, the production of The Cold War-Part I is terrific.  

VideoCabaret Presents:

Plays until: June 5, 2022

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Opened: May 5, 2022.

I saw it, May 10, 2022

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