It’s been playing for almost a month now. I figure at least 5000 people have attended thus far. I’ve volunteered for it four times, seen it FIVE times, and most every showing has been damn near sold out. The first ever joint production between Ottawa’s theatrical heavyweights the National Arts Center and the Great Canadian Theatre Company seems to be, by any measurement, a wild success. And now, with less than one week left in its celebrated run, I’m finally going to get off my lazy ass and write a few, likely completely unnecessary words, about the show. About VIMY.
…hey, did anyone else notice that? I wrote an introduction! Wow, it feels like I never do that. I’m really growing.
But I digress! It was one month ago tomorrow, as I write this, that I first saw VIMY at the dress rehearsal. Like everyone else, I was pretty excited about it. Not that I knew much about the piece, the brainchild of one Vern Thiessen, other than it was about the legendary battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, and that Nick DiGaetano was in it. The Visitorium has quite a soft spot for the MiCasa kids, so I was all gung ho for this one…although I doubted if I was actually in for COUNTRIES SHAPED LIKE STARS: THE WAR YEARS. And I wasn’t (although there IS a song!).
No, VIMY is something else entirely. A war story about stories, about people, about a country fighting for identity, all of that romantic jazz and more. It starts off in a hospital in France, just after the epic assault on Hill 145 by some 20,000 canuck troops, where we meet four men, broken and mangled, and the angel watching over them. Together, they form a neat cross-section of Canada, far from home and seemingly getting more lost by the second.
DiGaetano is Will, who comes off initially like a somewhat brash everyman but goes on to become perhaps the most complex character in the whole story. Kevin Loring shines as Mike Goodstriker, an indian aching to prove his valour. John Doucet is JP, an enthusiastic Quebecer shaken literally to his core by his experience. Jon Elliot Koensgen (yes, son of John ‘Killer’ Koensgen…good theatrical stock indeed!) is the soft spoken Winnipegger Sid, who just wants a little bit of warmth.
Watching over them is bluebird Clare, played with palpable joy by Katie Swift. Clare is kind of the glue that hold VIMY together as she tends to the soldiers and hears their stories (Clare loves stories, you see…), even as she searches for the ending to her own. It seems the war has separated her from her love Laurie, played by James Stuart MacDonald, and she yearns to reconnect with him even as he almost literally haunts the show, appearing eerily through the backdrop, overtop and off to the side, always near but never there. And although Clare seems determined not to let the war break her spirit, the relentless tide of it seems determined to wear her down. It smacks its lips, holds its breath…and when it finally strikes, there’s nothing anyone can do.
VIMY is a wondrous piece, and I can merrily say that in five viewings not one part of it ever got stale. Linda Moore directs with a cinematic hand, and the script by Thiessen wrings gasps and sobs as easily as it does laughs. From a terrific scene in which our bedridden fighters verbally spar over the latest hockey news from back home, to evocative flashbacks detailing who these men, and Clare, were back home. And the battle itself…yeah, it’s fucking stunning. Starting off with the most amazing training sequence this side of 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, and moving into each man’s experience in the massive, meticulous, and almost incomprehensible assault on Vimy Ridge that day in 1917. Horror and tragedy become the order of the day. The lines between heroism, cowardice, and just plain luck become almost hopelessly blurred, and you realize that these men, men our country to this day places on a pedestal higher than any other, really are that…just men. And that the story of Vimy Ridge is more than one story…and can never fully be told. Just fragments. But what fragments.
So, basically, I’m glad I saw VIMY five damn times, I am. It’s all stuck in here now, and it ain’t never gonna leave. The way Katie Swift says Shubenacadie, the way Nick DiGaetano asks (nay, demands) what you’re gonna do day off. Kevin Loring seeing a sky of fire (twice), and John Doucet getting the show of his life (better even than in Montreal!). James Stuart MacDonald struggling to pronounce Place Jacques Cartier (and honestly, that should get bigger laughs than it does), and Jon Koensgen looking for somewhere he can really just belong…just be. Just be WARM. Maybe Bora Bora…
So hats off, ladies and gents, for a fine show. From the cliffs at Five Islands to Somewhere in France, you done good. And yes, there ARE still tickets available for this final week! Now hurry up and get one if you haven’t seen it yet…because, frankly, I’m thinking six viewings has a nice ring to it. Hmmm…
Peace, love and soul to you all,
The Visitor (and Winston)