The War of 1812: History Like You’ve Never Seen

Brianna McFarlane

Videocabaret - War of 1812

             Photograph by Michael Cooper, 2013

              I admit, with much chagrin, that I am not well versed in the War of 1812. When it’s brought up in casual conversation, I’m that person that asks, “is that the one that the Americans think they won?” Understandably, my question is met with some raised eyebrows before being regaled by tales of General Isaac Brock, Tecumseh, and, my personal favourite, the burning of the White House. So, when I first noted The War of 1812, written and directed by Michael Hollingsworth and performed by Video Cabaret, as part of Magnetic North’s 2013 program, I was excited for the chance to learn more about this gem in Canadian history, especially when it’s being put on as a satirical cabaret. I’m going to be blunt here: If you only see one show at this year’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival, this is the one to see.

The War of 1812 is actually part of a much larger series, written by Hollingsworth, called The History of the Village of the Small Huts which they describe in the program as being “seriously humorous satires combining comedy, tragedy, pathos, and farce to dramatise Canada’s history”, and I have to agree. This show is seriously funny. If my Canadian history classes had been taught like this, I would have paid more attention. Hollingsworth and Video Cabaret have come up with a richly imagined story about the Yankees versus the Brits that doesn’t take one side or the other and in the end only reinforces the fact that this war changed absolutely nothing. Although there are some moments that tend to feel longer than others, such as many of the scenes with Laura and James Secord, overall I find this show to be extremely well written and clever while also maintaining a sense of accuracy and authenticity.

Set designer Andy Moro transforms the stage at Arts Court into a type of black box configuration that is more reminiscent of a television screen or even a puppet show; you can’t help but wonder how the heck they’re going to re-enact an entire war in such a small space. The cast of eight play no less than fifty-five characters, each of whom have distinct costumes, wigs, accents and facial expressions. These facial expressions play a prominent role in building character as the minimal lighting, also designed by Moro, which is comprised of small spotlights only highlight an area no larger than the actor’s upper body. In fact, the audience is told at the beginning of the show by the Stage Manager, Andrew Dollar, how important the absence of light is. You can see why as the performers practically glow in their powdered faces and lamé costumes (designed by Astrid Janson) against the incredible blackness of thestage.

If you’re looking for a realistic telling of this story, then this show is not for you. This performance is the definition of theatrical. It’s campy and flashy, but, my god, is it ever meticulous. The scene changes last all of five seconds and you’re often left baffled by how quickly and quietly the performers are able to change costumes and wigs, not to mention the odd outrageous set pieces like a boat or wooden palisade.  And how do they re-enact thebattle scenes on stage? In slow motion fight choreography. It is truly something that needs to be seen to be believed.

The acting is just as meticulousas the scene changes. Each of the fifty-five characters portrayed are completely distinct from one another and fully fleshed out. What I found particularly interesting was the fact that often times it was the lesser known characters that were stealing the stage from the famed heroes of history. The American and British soldiers were easily some of my favourite characters and Sofia Shaw and Dolly Madison, as played by Aurora Browne and Linda Prystawska respectively, held their ground in a male dominated play. However, in my opinion, the standout performer is Paul Braunstein, who plays my two favourite characters: Governor General “Supremo” Prevost and a Bostonian soldier, who were both unforgettable. I can honestly say that I’ve never laughed as hard as I did when Prevost enters the stage after a particularly epic speech from De Salaberry and simply says, “Oh, the saliva berry.” There were tears. Special mentions also have to go out to the rest of the cast because they were all equally fantastic: Richard Alan Campbell as James Secord; Richard Clarkin portraying the famed General Brock; Mac Fyfe as Captain “It’s a bad day for you” Fitzgibbon; Derek Garza as Tecumseh; and Jacob James as President Madison.

The technical aspects in this show also need to be praised, for they are incredibly well done. The music, designed by Brent Snyder, is perfectly suited for this piece. Every character (or sometimes group of characters) has their own soundtrack that plays when they are on stage, helping the audience keep track of who’s who. My personal favourite was the banjo overture that played anytime General Winfield Scott was on stage. It made his character just that much more ridiculous. The lighting is definitely something that is unique and special to this show, as stated before,and the lighting cues and transitions are clean and well executed. The costumes,by Janson, and wigs, designed by Alice Norton, are stunning. The style of the pieces are historically accurate though with a tad more lamé (and by “a tad” I mean a lot) and they absolutely pop against the black box stage, even with the extremely minimal lighting.

This company exudes what professional theatre should look like: they’re on point, engaging, well written, well performed, and, as far as I’m concerned, giving the audience what they paid for. This show is worth every dollar and it’s really no wonder why this company has won no less than twenty-three Dora awards: they deliver perfection. I think some of Ottawa’s professional companies need to take a page out of Video Cabaret’s book and to start becoming more meticulous about their own work on stage.

The War of 1812 is playing at Arts Court theatre until June 15th. Come out and support Canadian excellence on stage at this year’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival!