Review: VideoCabaret delivers a cartoon Cole’s Notes of history for Canada 150

  • Title Confederation: The History of the Village of the Small Huts, 1861 – 1882
  • Written by Michael Hollingsworth
  • Directed by Michael Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor
  • Starring Michaela Washburn, Richard Clarkin and Jamie Cavanagh
  • Venue Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City Toronto

Before we got into a debate over whether the 150th anniversary of Confederation is a cause for celebration or not, surely one of the first things we should have done is simply talk about what happened in this land a century and a half ago.

Mostly, however, the art surrounding Canada’s sesquicentennial has assiduously avoided grappling with anything as tangible as, say, the British North America Act of 1867. The giant rubber duck docked in Toronto’s harbour for Canada 150 seems the most honest representation of how we’ve chosen to mark its birthday – literally, a huge decoy from what the party is actually about.

So, say what you will about the Toronto theatre company VideoCabaret and its 30-year-long project to dramatize Canada’s past, The History of the Village of the Small Huts, at least it is not trying to change the subject.

While most of the Soulpepper company is down in New York, VideoCab has been left with the keys to the Young Centre for the Performing Arts – where they’re now mounting four of the chapters from founder Michael Hollingsworth’s massive history cycle, condensed (with the help of his co-director and collaborator Deanne Taylor) into two evenings.

Confederation and Riel covers the years from 1861 to 1870, while Scandal and Rebellion covers the years from 1871 to 1882 – and the two are presented in repertory with the same eight spry actors covering characters from D’Arcy McGee to Big Bear.

Hollingsworth’s take on Confederation is simple – or, perhaps, simplistic. The various fathers of the idea – French, English, Catholic, Protestant – are united by two desires: To avoid becoming part of the United States; and get rich through economic expansion.

Of course, there are people and peoples who oppose their vision and will be trampled by it – primarily, in these plays at least, Louis Riel (Michaela Washburn, in a pathos-filled performance that anchors this almost five-hour double-bill) and the Métis. This country was not built from one coast to the other, but consciously colonized – with the Canadian Pacific Railway depicted, as one of my old history professors used to call it, as a “tentacle of empire.”

Much attention has been paid to the style of Hollingsworth’s history plays over the decades VideoCab has been producing and reproducing them. His actors wear whiteface and wild wigs and move from one pinpoint spotlight to another on a black box glimpsed through a picture frame while carrying oversized joke props. The whole enterprise looks like a walking/talking 19th century political cartoon – and it’s a highly polished, heavy-handed aesthetic that will impress first-timers.

Perhaps because of the clear satirical side of Hollingsworth’s presentation of his shows, it has managed to escape too much attention that he essentially subscribes to the Great Man theory of history.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald (a wily Richard Clarkin) may regularly be seen with a bottle in his hand slurring his words, but that doesn’t mean Hollingsworth doesn’t admire the skill with which he finds a way to unite the likes of Sir George-Étienne Cartier in Canada East (who keeps shouting “minority rights”) and George Brown in Canada West (who keeps responding “rep by pop”) behind the idea of Confederation.

“That which is easy to secure is difficult to maintain, and that which is difficult to secure is easy to maintain,” says Macdonald, carrying around a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Four hours later, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Jamie Cavanagh, performatively drawing parallels to Pierre Elliott Trudeau) will say the same thing – foreshadowing that once the Liberals build the coalition of voters that will help them come into power, they will never really leave it for long.

In between, you get a lot of facts, but not a lot of feeling. Hollingsworth’s leftie Boomer view of the country means that when he does find true heroes in high places, they are French-Canadian Liberals – and they’re not really in power at this point. His infatuation with Laurier – who he described as “my great hero” in an interview with this newspaper in 1991 the first time these plays were performed – is one of the problems with this chunk of Hollingsworth’s cycle on its own.

The playwright spends so much time on Laurier’s personal matters, including his romance with his best friend’s wife, that it can feel like one big prequel for the next play in the cycle: Laurier. Almost everyone else (Riel aside) is in 2D.

Seeing these plays condensed and in rep, which VideoCab has always dreamed of doing, leads to the fun wearing off at a certain point in each of the evenings – even with actors with such great comic timing in the cast as Kevin Bundy and Kat Letwin. It starts to really feel like a Coles Notes of Canadian history, rather than dramas – and I found myself yearning to just watch an hour-long play about, say, notorious Orangeman Thomas Scott.

Hollingsworth’s sympathies become too easy to predict – he roots for the underdog, until an underdog to that underdog appears. All theatregoers should take in his singular vision of history at least once – but I do have mixed feelings about it. Hollingsworth and Taylor are very clearly artists who have stagnated – doing the same thing over and over with minor refinements, the rabble-rousing Robert Wilsons of Canada. On the other hand, you could say they’re just continuing to occupy unceded territory – as the generation of artists that has followed them has shown little interest in offering an alternative take on Canadian history or digging deeper into pockets of it.

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