The third offering from the Shaw Festival’s first week of openings continued the theme of conscious disruptions seen in Saint Joan where the young miracle worker had to be silenced for the good (and security!) of those in power, then The Madness of George III where the presumed demise of the King revealed family, friends and apparent colleagues in their true colours only to be stymied in their nefarious schemes by a somewhat miraculous recovery (a clear case of “Don’t get mad, get better”!) (cross-references below).
In Rick Salutin’s early ‘70s play describing the attempt by “simple” Canadians to rid themselves of Britain’s self-serving colonial rule, the amateur insurgents fail to achieve victory but, nevertheless, plant the seeds, that a mere 30 years later, blossomed into the second-largest country on the planet.
The format is ideally suited to the ensemble-minded actors and designers at the Shaw. But the artistic icing on this historical cake is Philip Akin’s ever-imaginative, nearly always sensitive (the monkey joke has to go!) direction of the sketch-fest, producing a first half that is amongst the best ever seen since reviews began here in 2003 and second half that, despite not being able to maintain the pace/energy/inventiveness (more or less inevitable given the copious amounts of back-story required to make sense of the “conflict”), left few in the appreciative crowd with anything but praise, cheers and applause even as the curtain fell on the nooses doing their work in “Toronto the Good”.
The music and its vigorous presentation by the cast (all under the watchful eye and ear of John-Luke Addison), with its literal percussive footwork (Stompin’ Tom Connors is smiling somewhere), clear, well-blended vocalizations (wonderfully anchored in the “overture” by new-to-Shaw Jeremiah Sparks: basso truly profundo) kept toes a tappin’ on both sides of the proverbial footlights.
Also new to the company, Jonah McIntosh moved (including tumbling!) with the greatest of ease and easily switched on and off from various characters (as everyone did, irrespective of gender or race).
The veterans more than held their own with Donna Belleville especially convincing as a Napoleonic veteran who is saddled with the job of herding kittens in the lead-up to hostilities on December 7 (er, or was that December 4…). Largely playing William Lyon Mackenzie, Ric Reid navigated the longish speeches (well, it is a political part) with considerable aplomb while Sharry Flett left no eye dry holding a lantern as Joan of Arc might have done knowing her new husband had to fight but was unlikely to return. Marla McLean gave a fascinating training drill with a pitchfork before employing that knowledge on properly haughty then cowed Cherissa Richards (reminding one and all of Salutin’s gift for comedy with his name-of-the-cow joke—deftly balancing the tension of deadly events to come).
Rachel Forbes into/out of the woods sets were a joy at every turn, complemented by Steve Lucas, whose spot-on lighting seemed never to miss a target or cue).
With both Canadians and Americans likely in the audience for every performance, there will be different understandings/takes about this part of our joint-history. Salutin deftly manages to portray the U.S. as a nearby mecca for fed-up Upper Canada immigrants but still manages to remind everyone about the necessity for the Underground railroad and how “clearing Indians off the land” seems a mirror image to the British. 44 years after the première, it appears that history continues to repeat itself whether through immigration policy or building border-long walls. JWR