THE RED RIVER REBELLION written and directed by Michael Hollingsworth, with Richard Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Stephen McCarthy, Linda Prystawska, Anand Rajaram, Dylan Roberts and Sean Sullivan. Presented by VideoCabaret at the Cameron House (408 Queen West). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 17) and runs to March 20, Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$30. 416-703-1725. Rating: NNNNN
In Michael Hollingsworth's hands, the dry textbook facts you learned in school turn to magic.
During the past few years, the playwright/director's been revisiting his epic History Of The Village Of The Small Huts. The last entry, Confederation, won a 2004 Dora for outstanding new play.
Hollingsworth's now up to The Red River Rebellion, which evokes the rogues and heroes of the period just after 1867 Confederation, when the liquorish Sir John A. Macdonald worked on annexing Manitoba to the new Canada. His efforts are resisted by a number of people, including a young Louis Riel, who ends up defending his western home against forces in Ottawa.
"I've studied this material in school but have little memory of it," notes Anand Rajaram, who also worked with VideoCab in Deanne Taylor's City For Sale last year. "The only reason I know some of the names from Canadian history is because I see their pictures on money. But Michael makes these guys stand out."
"We've talked a lot about the Louis Riel graphic novel by Chester Brown, which is, like this play, a political cartoon," says Sean Sullivan, who joins the VideoCab troupe for the first time. "This is a fast-paced show with broad characters, many of whom are built around the seven deadly sins. The few who represent the virtues are either insane to begin with or are driven so during the course of the show.
"Everyone bursts onto the stage in bright, shocking colours."
The cast of seven play some 25 characters, ranging from bigwig politicos like Macdonald and the fastidious Wilfrid Laurier to Riel's comic-relief friends, from hellfire-spouting priests to inane aesthetes.
"Michael uses various styles as the jumping-off point for his writing," notes Rajaram. "Here it's Victorian melodrama and spaghetti westerns, so expect some shock and gore."
Rajaram compares the performing experience to working with masks, especially given the heavy makeup everyone wears. Then he expands the comparison with a smile: "It's more like a mask puppet cartoon carnival."
Both Sullivan and Rajaram are known for their physical work. Sullivan burst onto the Canadian stage with the hyperkinetic Baby Redboots' Revenge in 1997, while Rajaram is an ensemble member of Corpus. But they've never done anything like this, which requires fast costume changes - they each play five characters - and performing on a black-box set that imposes tight restrictions on the actors.
"I'm used to dense, edgy work, but relying on a small space to create physical punctuation is a new experience," offers Sullivan. "There's not the room to flap about and do great, extravagant physicality.
"Instead of exploring in this frame" - he extends his arms to their fullest reach - "we have to operate in something this size," he continues, boxing his face with his hands.
"There's no room for anything extraneous, and we know right away if a precise gesture or voice works in this world of close-ups.
"What's extraordinary is the weird way that limitations push you toward creativity and artistic freedom."
Even the backstage area, a constricted horseshoe space filled with costumes, wigs and actors, is a challenge. The day of the interview, in fact, the company's doing what amounts to a choreographed rehearsal of what happens out of the audience's sight.
"When you're doing a dance or physical theatre piece, you're in performance mode onstage and know where you have to be," says Rajaram, VideoCab's playwright in residence. "Backstage it's usually looser, and you can choose where you want to be.
"Here I find that I have more freedom onstage. I'm in control and can play, even with the tiny spots of light that we have to work in. Backstage I have to be careful that I don't accidentally slug someone or have someone slug me."
"Yeah, it's a lot like a fashion show," laughs Sullivan, "with all the poise showing onstage and the madness in the offstage area. The time between your exit as one figure and your entrance as another can be heart-poundingly brief.
"What the audience gets, though, is a full theatrical experience, in 70 minutes, on a stage the size of a postage stamp."