THE BASICS: For “Canada 150” the Shaw Festival is presenting two relevant plays. 1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille about the early days of Toronto (with some relevance to Buffalo’s history) has eight actors playing various roles in skits (2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission, appropriate for ages 12+). 1979 by Michael Healy about Prime Minister Joe Clark uses 3 actors in multiple roles and runs 85 minutes without intermission; appropriate for ages 17+ based on content and language. Both plays were seen at the intimate 327-seat Courthouse Theatre, 26 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (about 50 minutes from Buffalo) and while both run through mid-October, 1979 will go dark in September, then will re-open at The Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre (adjacent to the large Festival Theatre) October 1 through October 14. Visit the website: www.Shawfest.com. Beer, wine, liquor, juice, tea, coffee, soft drinks, candy available.
THUMBNAIL SKETCHES: Think back to 1968, the years of protest against the establishment. That’s when Torontonians Jim Garrard and Paul Thompson created “Theatre Passe Muraille” or “Theater Beyond Walls” to create plays that were open and inclusive and designed to reach into the community using untrained actors delivering home grown pastiche shows of improvisation, monologues, songs, and skits. That’s all evident in the presentation of 1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT about Canadians unhappy with the British colonial system who stage an unsuccessful revolution, whipped up by Scottish born agitator William Lyon Mackenzie, as told in a series of monologues, songs, and skits. Back in the 60s and 70s, as community theater, it might have been “groovy,” but in 2017 it seemed clunky and too much like a high school assembly play.
Think back to 1979, which is the title of the other “history” play this year at Shawfest. The economy was bad in Europe, in the U.S., and in Canada. There was the “second” gasoline shortage, this time caused by the revolution in Iran; in Britain the weak economy and disaffection with the Labour Party led to the election of the Conservative Party’s Margaret Thatcher; here in the U.S. we were gearing up for the 1980 election of the conservative Ronald Reagan, and in Canada, economic “stagflation” had led to the ouster of the sexy Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau wearing his tailored French suits by the very prosaic unknown from the western provinces in his brown corduroy suit, Joe Clark, of the Progressive Conservatives. This is a play about “Joe Who?” and his distaste for political maneuvering on the night of the biggest vote in Parliament of his career; the earnest and honest man who later became known as “the conscience of a nation” but here is presented as well-intentioned but naïve. During this fast-paced hour and a half we meet a bevy of Canadian PMs: Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Stephen Harper and a host of supporting characters, all played by only three actors, with the assistance of projected comments (that might sound dreadful but they are so well written and timed that they are hilarious).
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: As mentioned, all this year Canadians have been celebrating the sesquicentennial (150 years) of Canadian Confederation by which the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were united into one Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. Upon confederation, the old province of Canada was divided into Ontario and Quebec and, along with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, united four provinces. Since Confederation, Canada has grown to ten provinces and three territories. All during “Canada 150,” every arts venue from coast to coast has been adding “Canadian content” to its line-up. And if that paragraph you just read was more than you wanted to know, then know that you won’t like either of these plays.
At least, I didn’t like 1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT. Now, to be fair, if I had been “brought up to speed” on the events through some sort of programming, at least more than speed reading the (by the way, excellent as always) extensive notes in the playbill, I probably would have liked it more. And, in fairness, The Shaw Festival does provide ancillary programming, but I’m not going to drive two hours round trip for that. And, yes, I know that we denizens of the U.S. are particularly insular and ignorant about everyone else’s history and culture, but this was asking a bit too much of the audience. And, yes, these were not community actors but Shaw professionals, but still it seemed an awful lot like a boring history lesson. I’m assuming and hoping that busloads of high school kids will attend this show, kids who have been studying the events and the times in their classes. Good for them.
On the other hand, as I’ve implied, the play 1979 was great theater for anyone on either side of the bridge, and while not everything was spoon fed (it was clear that the audience, mostly Canadians of an age to have been alive in 1979, was getting more out of most jokes than I was) enough context was revealed to set up each scene. A lot of the heavy lifting went to the simple projections on a screen at the back of the stage, which were content rich, were funny, and were incredibly well timed, so that they became a fourth actor in themselves. It’s a problem for all writers: how to communicate back story, context, and specialized knowledge without stalling the narrative. I would advise every creative person I know to see 1979 for a model of how to be simultaneously entertaining and educational.
I would advise every creative person I know to see 1979 for a model of how to be simultaneously entertaining and educational.
The direction by Eric Coates was sure; the set, lighting, and projections by Steve Lucas were simple and effective; the costumes (and the wigs!) by Jennifer Goodman were a fabulous trip down memory lane; and both the original music and sound design by Keith Thomas made it exciting and added to the nostalgic humor (humour?). And the acting was 100% Shaw quality. Sanjay Talwar who plays Joe Clark is on stage for the full 85 minutes and actually looks just like Joe Clark, while Ms. Marion Day as (utility) “Actor B” and Mr. Kelly Wong as (utility) “Actor A” pop on and off stage taking on a variety of characters, fully costumed, wigged, and made-up and many gender bended (Ms. Day is beyond superb as a young Stephen Harper).
…the acting was 100% Shaw quality. Sanjay Talwar who plays Joe Clark is on stage for the full 85 minutes and actually looks just like Joe Clark.
The Shaw Festival (www.shawfest.com) continues to offer plays into October. While MIDDLETOWN ends on September 10; WILDE TALES and Shaw’s ANDROCLES AND THE LION run through October 7; and 1837: THE FARMER’S REVOLT ends on October 8 (note that Thanksgiving Day in Canada and Columbus Day in the U.S. are celebrated on Monday, October 9). Looking at the final weekend, DRACULA; 1979 (about Prime Minister Joe Clark); and AN OCTOROON end on October 14; while Shaw’s SAINT JOAN, the musical ME AND MY GIRL; THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III; and DANCING AT LUGHNASA close the Festival’s offerings on Sunday, October 15, 2017. Also note that Sunday performances are now “an hour early” at both 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!