Whoever said Canadian history is boring (okay, most Canadians have probably said that at SOME point) never took in a VideoCabaret show. And actually, now that I write that, I apologize…I bet tons of people have used that as the opening line in a VideoCabaret review, because it turns out they’ve been around a lot longer than an idiot like me realized before I walked into their show last night. They’ve been kicking about in one form or another since 1976, and in 1985 co-founder and playwright Michael Hollingsworth launched a pretty ambitious cycle of plays about Canada’s history…THE HISTORY OF THE VILLAGE OF THE SMALL HUTS, which now numbers at a mighty impressive 21 plays ranging everywhere from WWII and Brian Mulroney to the Red River Rebellion and the early days of colonialism.
Shockingly, none of these insanely Canuck plays has appeared in Ottawa, until now, as part of the Magnetic North Festival. And they’ve picked a doozy for their capitol debut, THE WAR OF 1812. A highly stylized retelling of one of Canada’s fav’rit old-timey bloodbaths, VideoCabaret gives the tale their one-of-a-kind twist with seriously clever staging, magnificent makeup and costumes, the darkest theatre you’ve EVER been in, and a helluva lot more. Featuring a cast of eight wickedly talented actors, the story unfolds like an acid dream version of history: US President James Madison (Jacob James) and his smashing wife Dolly (Linda Prysawska), are looking to smash the Indian uprising being led by Tecumseh (Derek Garza) and his brother, the Prophet (Aurora Browne). Concerned that the Indians are being supplied by Britain, Madison sets his sights on the nearest colony…namely, Canada. With American General Harrison (Richard Alan Campbell) on the move, nervous Governor General Prevost (Paul Braunstein) sends his most decorated General, Isaac Brock (Richard Clarkin) to deal with the attack. Brock gets the gruff Captain Fitzgibbon (Mac Fyfe, recently seen in Ottawa as Brutus in JULIUS CAESER from Ottawa Shakespeare Company) to join up with Tecumseh, and assemble a special squad of ‘Bloody Boys) to take care of business.
This is barely getting started in the massive undertaking that is 1812, and I need to point out that every actor I just listed each play several other roles beyond what I’ve mentioned. The scenes are fast and furious, with split-second, blacked out transitions that are as smooth as cue balls. Scenery and props appear seemingly out of nowhere, wig and costume changes are almost certainly handled via some kind of sorcery, and how they all keep from tripping over each other back there I’ll NEVER know. This production is so tight it’s a wonder it can still breath, but it not only breathes it soars with life, laughs and imagination. Garishly exaggerated versions of the heroes and villains of Canadian history strut and pose, swoon and fight before our eyes in a play that feels like what Public Broadcasting would look like if cartoons were real. In other words, fucking AWESOME. Picking out any specific highlights is almost impossible, though I did get a giddy thrill every time Fitzgibbon snarled his signature line ‘It’s a bad night for YOU, boyo…’. And if you weren’t sold on this incredible show already…did I mention there’s a cow? WAR OF 1812 plays at Arts Court Theatre until the end of the Festival, so no excuses! Peace, love and soul,
Kevin Reid, the Visitor (and Winston)
PS: I wanted to drop mention of the wicked cool musical intro to the show, a few minutes worth that reminded me of the soundtrack to some early-80’s hi-concept sci-fi flick…like a cross between ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and LIQUID SKY. Very funky.