By Mike Keenan.
As Canada turns 150, theatre companies across the land are featuring historical Canadian dramatic offerings to help promote the anniversary theme. Stratford Festival productions include The Breathing Hole and The Komagata Maru Incident, and at Shaw, we have 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt plus 1979 about former P.M., Joe Clark.
An usher at Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille’s 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt warned me that “you either love this play or hate it” and that many patrons had walked out. I loved it ‒ for a variety of reasons, and a St. Catharines connection, John-Luke Addison, the Music Director, played a large part in its success.
Addison has worked for Garden City Productions and is Associate Conductor of Chorus Niagara. On his website, he says that “As a conductor, I am particularly interested in theatrical music, as I specialize in conveying emotion through each ensemble I direct. Music and drama are kaleidoscopic landscapes of emotion, cultural expressions of diversity, and use their quiet magnitude to transcend the human condition. I am an artist and creative being by eliciting organic emotional responses, and expressing my inner portmanteau of sentiment and feeling.”
An artist indeed. His sound and music are employed for great effect in the tiny Court House Theatre from beginning to end. In fact the play brilliantly directed by Philip Akin, can be summarized as Stomp meets William Lyon Mackenzie, the later fleeing to Navy Island with a small band of his rebels after their Toronto defeat. The immigrant farmers had been struggling for years to turn Upper Canada’s forests into farmland, and their land allotted to government cronies, the desperate men and women march down Toronto’s Yonge Street with Mackenzie as their leader.
The action dramatically opens with the talented and mixed racial ensemble (Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo, and Jeremiah Sparks) singing and chanting with foot stomping, hand slapping and chest thumping amidst a minimalist Norval Morrisseau-like set that features trees, logs and stumps, the hefty items that immigrant farmers must clear to engender success in Upper Canada.
Monologues, petite scenes, and group songs ensue and Ric Reid provides the necessary exposition, describing the all-powerful Family Compact that controls and frustrates the early citizens so much so that they finally rebel by taking up arms. Rachel Forbes’ set and costume design advances the action. Wearing unisex clothing, the talented ensemble plays multiple roles and both sexes as they present vivid vignettes of Canadian history.
Throughout the play, there are humorous comparisons of our settlers with citizens in the U.S.A. with whom the Brits tangled earlier in the War of 1812. A scene in which a farmer travels to Detroit suggests the many attributes of the U.S., but their Civil War was only a few years away ‒ from 1861 to 1865.
Lighting designer Steve Lucas adds to the effect, but it is the movement design by Esie Mensah that creatively maximizes the small, sparse set, utilizing the nimbleness of the ensemble’s younger cast members who race and somersault about to perform multiple roles.
This was a unique and creative experience all around, the story of an uprising that paved the way for our nationhood. All that was missing was George Armstrong, indigenous captain of the 67 ‘Leafs accepting the Stanley Cup from league president, the Waspy Clarence Campbell.
1837: The Farmers’ Revolt plays at the Court House Theatre (26 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake) to October 8.