Pictured from left: Mac Fyfe, Jacob James, Greg Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Richard Alan Campbell, Linda Prystawska, Michaela Washburn and Anand Rajaram. (Photo by Michael Cooper)
The War of 1812
Written and directed by Michael Hollingsworth
Studio Theatre Annex
Runs until August 12
Review by Geoff Dale
Those who have seen any of Michael Hollingsworth’s award winning comedy-of-manners series The History of the Village of the Small Huts clearly have an advantage of sorts when taking in The War of 1812, a startlingly original repertory performance being showcased by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Yet it should be stressed clearly from the onset that any previous knowledge of Hollingsworth’s VideoCabaret work is just that – an advantage – certainly not a carved-in-stone perquisite to seeing The War of 1812. A visually stunning, fast-paced and starkly mounted work that is both outlandishly humorous and painfully tragic; it is a satiric entity onto itself that can stand alone on its merits.
As one segment of Hollingsworth’s cycle outlining satirizing Canada’s period of colonialism, the production is a brilliant way of marking the 200th anniversary of a conflict that, in his view, ultimately resulted in no significant changes for either the Americans or the British but decidedly shattered the people of the First Nations.
The war between the US and England (in Canada), with the latter’s native allies, is presented in a series of rapid-fire vignettes. On the brilliantly lit stage within a compact intimate pitch black theatre, the production comes off as a bizarre yet wonderfully effective mix of opera, puppetry, vaudevillian slapstick and cutting-edge theatre that marries a stylized view of traditional history with a smattering of modern-day cliques and sensibilities thrown in for good measure.
If you spot snippets of popular culture courtesy of the famed Goon Show, Saturday Night Live or even Theatre Passe Muraille rubbing shoulders with reinvented visions of Canadiana, you have discovered one of the hidden joys of VideoCabaret. You might even stumble upon at least one general who sounds and looks eerily like Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter (albeit missing some of the transsexual trappings) from the 1975 cult cinematic classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
And if you find yourself inexplicably humming the infamous And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for, from Country Joe McDonald’s 1965 classic anti-war Fixin' To Die Rag, then you’ve also been tuned in to Hollingsworth’s view of the futility and shameless waste of war.
The gifted company tackles an astonishingly wide range of characters in almost a blink of an eye from the minuscule but pompous James Madison and his politically brash wife Dolly to the malevolent cowardly General Proctor and, one of the production’s truly majestic figures, Anand Rajaram’s noble but tragic Tecumseh.
This is not the history Canadians will remember from the tattered pages of their dreary school text books that more often than not reduced such historic episodes to a series of disinterested military characters battling it out in border skirmishes, recounting deaths as if they were merely scores in a sporting event.
While our authors and historians have clearly but possibly unwittingly manufactured a Canadian identity – both past and present – that is benign and crushingly boring – Hollingsworth has literally redefined and revisualized many of our traditional views with broad and vigorously applied theatric strokes. Apparently our history doesn’t have to be viewed as an unlicensed sleep aid anymore.
The American and British adversaries are simply other worldly creatures grotesque and nauseating, their faces contorted in an array of shockingly funny expressions. Their soliloquies and monologues are the stuff of historical nonsense, played out by military stand-up comics in an imaginary nightclub setting peopled by figures, each one more ludicrous than the other.
The costuming, makeup, lighting, sound and the whole concept of the black-box theatre make the presentation a grand visceral happening, more so than just than a perfunctory night of recognizing fine stage performances. Powerfully evocative music – in the seven minute introduction and throughout the two-act production – draws from Celtic and native sources, with a suggested hint of hypnotic Vangelis-like influences (Blade Runner).
This satirical historical drama pushes the envelope with delightful abandon, often leaving the audience in a bewildered state, wondering whether to laugh out loud or recoil in horror from the tragic realities of the play’s moments of true pathos.
Festival organizers are to be commended for their bold move – the opening of one of the Studio Theatre’s rehearsal halls that accommodates an audience of less than 100 but is perfectly designed for the special staging techniques utilized so effectively by VideoCabaret. The intimate setting makes it seem like the actors are appearing on film, up close and in your face, exposing their every nuance, gesticulation and manic facial gestures.
The cast comprised of Greg Campbell, Richard Alan Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Mac Fyfe, Jacob James, Linda Prystawska, Anand Rajaram and Michaela Washburn is uniformly brilliant, flawlessly flashing through a list of more than 40 historic figures with mind-numbing speed.
Hollingsworth and his talented technique crew, including the likes of set and lighting designer Andy Moro, costume designer Astrid Janson, sound designers Jake Blackwood and Brent Snyder (also the composer) and stage manager Andrew Dollar have made this one of the true highlights of the Festival’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
Without question, The War of 1812 garners an enthusiastic four **** out of four.
You can also find this review online at: the beat magazine
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online www.stratfordfestival.ca