If you’ve ever heard of the ‘Black Donnellys’, it’s no doubt it’s because they’re central to an infamous Canadian tale that ends with their family’s massacre. Vigilante, written, composed and directed by Jonathan Chistenson, is an electric retelling of this dark and mysterious story that deals in blood feuds, vengeance, and murder. The deliciously macabre narration provided by the ghosts of the Donnellys themselves should sell you on this performance, but it’s the high theatricality, and driving force of the music, that make this two hour rock-opera truly impressive.
The late 1800s were some turbulent times for immigrants coming to settle the farmlands in the small counties of a newly confederated Canada. The township of Biddulph was one such county where, ‘as fate would have it’ (according to Wikipedia anyways), the particular mix of a few opposing Irish Catholic sects would prove to be the county’s biggest challenge in initially establishing a peaceful new society in the Free World. The historic account of the Donnelly’s life in Biddulph reads like a Shakespearean tragedy set in the Wild West, where people are mysteriously murdered behind the local taverns because of their family name, and cows are stolen from under their owners’ noses with a sense of imperiousness. Christenson’s stage-play really does justice to the drama inherent within this tale as he gives a voice to the embittered spirits of the Donnelly boys, and puts their matriarch, Johanna Donnelly (nee McGee), front and centre.
If you’re not familiar with the story, I do suggest giving the Wikipedia page a quick perusal because a) Christenson’s text only scratches the surface (though nailing the major bits) of what apparently went down during Biddulph’s “Reign of Terror” and b) it’s entertaining AF (yes I just used ‘af’ in a review…sue me). Vigilante the play focuses on the relationship between Johanna McGee and James Donnelly in a politically shaky Ireland, and their journey to Canada where they attempt to escape the religious fanaticism and hate of the ‘old world.’ Like any good opera, our major characters are fuelled by intense and powerful emotions – love, anger, revenge; and we watch as the Donnellys ruthlessly challenge a community dead set against their very existence.
Aesthetically speaking, this production is a veritable feast for the eyes. The set (conceptualized and realized by Christenson and James Robert Boudreau), though somewhat minimalist, is reminiscent of the high ceilings and buttresses of traditional opera stage design. It’s also evocative in its use of imagery of both the Donnelly farm’s literal new beginnings while also deploying wooden crosses symbolizing the seemingly omnipresent (and inescapable) Catholic faith.
The costumes and makeup by Narda McCarroll are also very eye-catching, with the ensemble giving off a definite steam-punk vibe, while all individually remaining very distinct on stage. I love the way that Beth Kate’s lighting design transforms the Donnellys’ pallor into the more sickly ghoulishness of the vengeful phantoms – creating a simple, but nonetheless effective transition of character. In all honesty, Kate’s lighting needs to be particularly commended because of the way it is utilized throughout the production in much more significant ways that just lighting the actors in the space.
As I just mentioned, director Christenson weaves Kate’s talents through the entire piece not only to help create character and facilitate character changes; but to also underscore certain moods or emotions (the most obvious being the blood red gels used in the ‘Vigilantes’ number); and they are also an important part of eliciting that feeling of being at a concert (as demonstrated by the use of the massive stand lights), which is undoubtedly integral to pulling off a successful rock-opera.
Another necessary element to creating this all encompassing atmosphere is, of course, the sound and music. In Vigilante, Christenson (along with Music Producer Matthew Skopyk) has blended together traditional Irish folk music with rock and roll, which certainly recalls the styles of such notable Irish rock bands like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. So, if you’re someone, like me, who goes out on St. Patrick’s Day just to hear the live bands, you are sure to enjoy the musical stylings of this production.
The songs themselves, for the most part, are fun and fiery and will have you stomping your feet along with the cast on a number of different occasions. By incorporating a variety of instruments, the five musicians on stage deliver a powerful score for the performers to play alongside with high energy ensemble numbers like ‘Tick Tock’ and ‘Vigilantes’ setting the mood and raising tensions; and Johanna and James’ love ballads adding vulnerability and softness in this hardened universe that the characters inhabit.
My only criticism is that on opening night, after the opening number, the sound levels appeared to drop making it quieter than it had just previously been. From then on, it seemed to me that I could feel the actors pulling back vocally, so as to not overpower the musicians with their microphones. This became most apparent in any moment the actors were doing choreographed stomping – the way the actors ‘pull’ their feet becomes much more obvious (and then kind of looks a little silly) because the drums behind them aren’t loud enough to mimic the sound of, what’s supposed to be, aggressively stomping feet over the performers’ vocals. If you’ve ever seen a traditional Irish band or been to an Irish rock concert, you know just how visceral that foot stamping can get and so where I expected to feel this in Vigilante, unfortunately I didn’t. I do want to be clear: this didn’t take away from my overall impression of the performance as it seems like a fairly easy problem to solve, and might just have been an issue with the venue itself, but like any live music event you are sometimes at the mercy of the technical deities.
All that to say, the acting is another great selling point for this show with standout performances from Kris Joseph as Daniel Donnelly (and also as a notable member of the ensemble) and Jan Alexandra Smith as the spirited Johanna Donnelly. Carson Nattrass as eldest son Will also deserves a shout out because his character, after Johanna, undergoes the most significant character development, despite occupying the role of narrator for a vast majority of the show. The play’s climax sees ghost-Will, haunted by visions of his mother, while he simultaneously recounts the brutal massacre being acted out before us, which brings such a beautiful moment of breakdown from this otherwise tough and swaggering individual – not to mention that having a ghost haunted by his own ghosts is an incredibly intriguing device used by the playwright.
I thought the overall physicality and choreography (by Laura Krewski) was very good, though, like I said, I feel like it could have been punchier had the sound been a touch louder. However, I enjoy the juxtaposition of the classic Irish jigs against the more creepy Bob Fosse-style Broadway movements, all of which really highlight the sheer theatricality of the piece. To wrap up these thoughts on the physical performance, I want to note that the accent work is really superb (no doubt thanks to Dialect Coach Doug Mertz). Joseph, who cycles through a few different intonations to really set his characters apart from one another, for example, the high nasally tones of Constable Carrol versus Daniel’s lower bass tones, does a particularly notable job in this respect.
Ultimately, Vigilante makes for a great night out at the theatre. If the first act feels like it drags on a little long, Act Two hits you like a straight shot of Jameson’s whiskey. A tale that certainly finds some timely relevance, the tragedy of Biddulph, Ontario, shows us what happens when we choose to sow the seeds of hate, and the consequences of letting those seeds take root and grow. Christenson’s text explores an unforgiving society, from not so long ago or far away, where people took justice into their own hands and bent the law to their own ends. Vigilante is a highly entertaining retelling of this morbid Canadian Heritage Moment, and is certainly worth checking out here at the National Arts Centre – even if it’s only just for the craic!
Written, composed and Directed by Jonathan Christenson
Produced by Catalyst Theatre (Edmonton) in collaboration with NAC English Theatre
Premiere commissioned by the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton
Cast: Jan Alexandra Smith, Kris Joseph, David Leyshon, Lucas Meeuse, Eric Morin, Caron Nattrass, Scott Walters, and Benjamin Wardle
Musicians: Taylor Cochrane, Allison Lynch, Kurtis Schultz, Nathan Setterlund, and Scott White
Jonathan Christenson- Director, Orchestrations, Vocal Arrangements and Music Director (Vocalists)
Laura Krewski- Choreographer
Matthew Skopyk- Music producer, Additional Orchestrations and Music Director (Orchestra)
Wade Staples- Sound Designer
Sarah Garton Stanley- Production Dramaturg
Narda McCarroll- Costume, Hair and Make Up Designer
Beth Kates- Lighting Designer
Jonathan Christenson & James Robert Boudreau- Set Concept and Realization
Doug Merz- Dialect Coach