In this bicentenary year of the War of 1812 there are all manner of ways and means of commemorating [Upper] Canada’s success in not being annexed by land-hungry Americans.
The recent two-hour special (The War of 1812: Been There, Won That) on CBC’s Doc Zone took a lighthearted approach as to how Canadians, British Redcoats along with Tecumseh and his Shawnee warriors banded together and saved the day. With more jokes than grim reminders of what actually happens during all-out armed conflict (with the notable exceptions of musket and bayonet techniques), the military “victory” was infused with a decidedly romantic almost whimsical tone.
Just a couple of weeks later, playwrights Michaela Washburn and Carrie Costello saw their view of how this same conflict might have been seen through the eyes of elementary school age children come to life. Following these first performances, the show embarks on a seven-week tour of schools across Ontario. Those lucky enough to have secured a date are in for a treat—and some subtle messages that ought to have been learned by all of humanity long before now.
The premise is simplicity itself. Two best friends live on opposite sides of a river. A wee bridge literally and metaphorically connects the two New World countries. Peace abounds and trading is vigorous. What could possibly go wrong?
Mohawk Waneek (Sarah Hansen gives a note-perfect impression of the “excited sharing”—a.k.a. chatterbox—cornbread devotee) and her family live off the land and happily trade goods for goods with their northern neighbours (think Free Trade without customs). Whitebread Sara (from the opening “terror in the chicken coop” routine, Amy Keating demonstrates her comedic strengths) is home alone while Mom helps bring her elder sister’s first child into the world; Dad is also away, doing his soldierly duty (a family tradition of loyalty to the flag).
The two girls spend the first few scenes teaching their surprise visitors (the audience soon comes to realize that they, too, are equally divided on both sides of the beautifully fabricated river that runs through them) all about doing laundry, collecting eggs and milling kernels of corn. With genuine artifacts on stage and eager helpers drawn from the attentive crowd (always a sign of quality on all fronts when trying to capture and hold the interest of young and old alike) into the spotlight to assist, there’s a lot of learning just in the doing. As an added bonus, Mohawk songs are stirred into the mix, reinforcing the twin notions that “many hands make light work” and singing through repetitive drudgery helps time pass quickly.
But just before you can say, “OK, where’s the beef?—just for the plot; not from XL Foods—Sara’s nephew marches into “town” (singing “Yankee Doodle” no less) and begins steering the production towards the shoals of war.
Having already done yeoman’s—and puppeteer’s—service as Nesty, the over-protective hen, Daniel Pagett brings nearly all the right stuff to the part of soldier wannabe Daniel (delaying his ensuing lines until after the audience’s reaction to the various bits of business has died down will give them greater impact, as would more weight from Sara’s first key-mention of “Mohawk”).
In Pagett’s early going, there’s a touch of Monty Python zaniness as the “heroic” trouper-in-waiting reveals his insecurities. Most fun is the brilliantly staged (as is the entire show: director Pablo Felices Luna continues to plumb his ever-inventive depths with every outing) “How to make rope” lesson. Later, when Daniel—literally—finds himself on the ropes, the pot of irony hilariously overflows (and curiously resonates with similar—if not near the resources—of the off-ground gyrations of Spiderman on Broadway; cross-reference below).
Daniel’s secret message (“We are at war”), which he has come under strict orders from Sara’s dad to deliver only to Mom is meant to be a game changer. Suddenly in enemy-by-geography manner, Waneek—despite the deep friendship with her equally instant adversary, Sara—is beyond trust. And so too with Ireland, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria ….
This is the only moment when Nigel Scott’s marvellously hued, detail-rich set, props and lighting fails to underscore the dramatic intent: both sides of the bridge look too much the same (a journey along the Niagara Parkway proves otherwise) so that—from young minds looking on (and the older ones perhaps recalling wars old and new)—the notion that two political/cultural jurisdictions are at deadly loggerheads lacks a visual cue other than the costuming. Likely the teaching guide makes that point and more, but the play loses its own final punch by not drawing a line in the sand that might make the sudden hatred-by-decree more believable and understandable. With our multicultural fabric so present in today’s Canada, the systemic racism from centuries past is—in most cases—more a long-ago blur than current norm.
Judging from the post-performance Q&A, Washburn and Costello got through to their target audience on many planes, yet will that be enough to begin laying the seeds against unsubstantiated hatred and mob rule before it’s their turn to take charge? JWR