The War Of 1812

Jul 31, 2012
A chapter of Michael Hollingsworth’s riotous history of Canada impresses a new audience at the Stratford Festival
By Jon Kaplan
critic's pick THE WAR OF 1812, written and directed by Michael Hollingsworth (VideoCabaret/Stratford). At the Studio Theatre Annex, Stratford. Runs to August 12; see stratfordshakespearefestival.com for details. $25-$75. 1-800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. See listing.

NOW RATING:

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It’s about time that Michael Hollingsworth’s brilliant take on Canadian history, The History Of The Village Of The Small Huts, got a wider audience, both American and Canadian.

Torontonians have been enjoying the multi-part VideoCabaret productions since the 1980s, and another generation of theatregoers has been watching the second and revised series of the shows at the Cameron House.

What a great idea for Stratford to bring one of the plays, The War Of 1812, to this year’s festival. The timing couldn’t have been better, this being the bicentennial of the conflict, one that affected Americans, Canadians and native people on both sides of the border.

No surprise that it opened on Canada Day.

This chapter of our national history, set three decades after the American War of Independence and covering the period from 1812 to 1815, chronicles the ongoing clash between America and Britain, the latter based in Upper Canada (southern Ontario). Drawn into the fray are First Nations tribes, who end up as pawns used by both sides for their own ends.

Hollingsworth’s first-rate team of performers – Greg Campbell, Richard Alan Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Mac Fyfe, Jacob James, Linda Prystawska, Anand Rajaram and Michaela Washburn – knows just how to play this farcical, cartoon-like material, written in short, punchy scenes; taking on dozens of roles, the actors never miss a beat.

I watched the audience as much as the performers for the first part of the play: initially they sat dumbfounded by the speed of the episodes and the iconoclastic handling of history on both sides of the border. But about 15 minutes into the show they got into the spirit and starting laughing uproariously at writer/director Hollingsworth’s satire of bumbling leaders, self-impressed military men and the common people who are metaphorically (and sometimes literally) trampled underfoot.

By the action’s end, things aren’t much different than they were at the start of the war in terms of boundaries, animosities and differences between the two cultures.

Part of the show’s pleasure comes from the outrageous, over-the-top costumes designed by Astrid Hanson, with wigs by Alice Norton and props by Brad Harley, lit by Andy Moro. Brent Snyder’s low key but insistent score is also a plus.

And how often does a company create a new space for a visiting troupe? The festival turned a rehearsal hall of the Studio Theatre into a black-box theatre for the occasion.

There’s lots more Canadian history that Hollingsworth has chronicled in his unique fashion. How wonderful if Stratford were to bring the VideoCabaret company back next season and beyond, giving it a summer home and a regular international audience.

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