To those who say Canadian history is dull, I say, yay, verily: Get thee to VideoCabaret.
Since 1985, this Toronto-based theatre company, led by playwrights Michael Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor, have been writing and producing plays about Canada’s history: there are currently 21 of them, gathered under the umbrella name of The History of the Village of the Small Huts. Many were written and performed between 1985 and 1999; then, in 2000, the plays were “reinvented”, to use VideoCabaret’s term for it and presented annually for a decade at the Cameron House, normally a concert venue/bar on Queen Street West in Toronto. During this second run, some plays were rewritten; some new plays were inserted into the history timeline, which starts with four plays about New France and currently ends with The Life & Times of Brian Mulroney (Canada’s 18th prime minister).
In 2012, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the Stratford Festival presented VideoCab’s take on that historic conflict and, the next year, Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre brought that production to one of its Young Centre stages in the Distillery District. Since then, Videocab, in association with Soulpepper, has mounted Trudeau and the FLQ in 2014, Trudeau and Levesque in 2015, and The Great War in 2016. In summer 2017, to celebrate the sesquicentennial, the companies are mounting four plays paired as two evenings of theatre about Canada’s confederation history : Confederation Part I: Confederation & Riel and Confederation Part II: Scandal & Rebellion.
Torontoist once called the VideoCab style “an insane mash-up of a Heritage Minute and a clown show.” That gets at the energy, but not the depth, of these shows. What you’re hearing sometimes sounds crazy or implausible but playwright Hollingsworth is devoted to accuracy: all this zany stuff really did happen.
VideoCab employs an unusual staging style: the set is a “black box” built within the stage, faced by a scrim of fabric onto which scenery can be projected, though which the actors are seen when lit. The entire theatre is kept devoid of light as much as possible to make this work. There is no set, as such, apart from some stepped platforms: the scenes are set through exaggerated props and costumes worn by actors in clown-like white face. As the Toronto Star explains in a profile on designer Astrid Janson, who, along with Melanie McNeill, create the signature VideoCabaret “go big or go home” look: “To facilitate the quick changes that take place between scenes in total darkness, everything from the sartorial layers of a tie, shirt, waistcoat and jacket of a statesman to the bosomy bustles of a ladies’ gown, complete with its jewels and accessories is clever constructed as one piece that attaches with Velcro.”
My pal Jacob James, who has acted in VideoCab shows, says the company of actors jokingly refer to themselves as “the mole people”. The shows employ seven or eight actors who cover up to 50 roles: the costumes whip on and off in 30 seconds in cramped, dark, backstage nooks.
Amid all the exaggeration and crazily concocted costumes, there can be moments of great emotion. In some of the shows with a dominant character, an actor will play only that role throughout. That was the case when Mac Fyfe inhabited — “played” seems the wrong term to use — the role of Pierre Elliot Trudeau in Trudeau and the FLQ, a performance that one him a Dora award for best actor, the Doras being Toronto’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony awards. He repeated the role in the next instalment (Trudeau and the PQ) that, as one of its plot threads, dramatically imagines what went on between Trudeau and his young bride, Margaret. Those scenes were lump-in-throat touching: Clowns can make you cry, as well as laugh.
I wish there were a way to package up these shows and present them to every teenaged history student in Canada. And I hope Hollingsworth thrives long enough that, eventually, we’ll get to see his latest work: Trudeau le Fils: The Sequel.
Main photo: Trudeau and the FLQ. Back row, left to right: Greg Campbell, Rick Campbell, Jacob James, Linda Prystawska Front row: Mac Fyfe and Aurora Browne. Presented in Association with Soulpepper. Photo: Michael Cooper