NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont.—During the first rehearsal for the Shaw Festival’s production of “Androcles and the Lion” in March, the festival’s newly appointed artistic director addressed the cast and crew on the subject of risk.
The festival’s riskiest shows, he explained, most often appear on the stage of the Court House Theatre, where his improv-driven “Androcles” will open on June 24 and where Philip Akin’s production of “1837: The Farmer’s Revolt” creaked partially to life on May 27.
“The risk series begins with Philip doing Farmer’s Revolt,” Carroll said, “which is a risk because it will answer the question of whether people want to come and see Canadian theater or just want to see that we’re doing Canadian theater.”
Everyone laughed, but it was a keen question. The preliminary answer came with a thud on opening weekend. While ticket sales and time will determine its true reach, it’s difficult to imagine audiences of any nationality flocking to this innovative but ultimately fatiguing history lesson on the protracted birth of a nation.
The 1973 play, whose authors chafed under British theatrical conventions just as its heroes chafed under British colonial rule, grew in a sense from the same soil as the revolt. It was written by Toronto-born political columnist Rick Salutin and developed by Theatre Passe Muraille, the Toronto company founded in 1968 with a mission to “articulate a distinct Canadian voice that reflects the complexity” of Canada’s intercultural society.
“1837” tells the story of working people struggling to free themselves from the oppressive treatment of Upper Canada’s kleptocratic government. That government was the focus of a failed uprising in 1837 led by William Lyon Mackenzie (Ric Reid, in fine form) that planted the seeds for Canada’s independence.
The most attractive aspect of “1837” is its fiercely independent spirit and its refusal to hew to the old forms or expectations. But the downside of the company’s laissez-faire approach is that viewers sometimes find themselves required to follow along with didactic recitations of personalities and facts, jazzed up with “devised theater” gimmicks that often seem as dated as wood paneling or tie-dye.
Be that as it may, it is hard to imagine a director or cast doing a better job with the material than Akin and his enthusiastic troupe of actors. Their skill is undeniable, and it often elevates passages that would otherwise transport you straight back to high school history class. The Rachel Forbes set, featuring a central path of rough-hewn logs and an abstract backdrop that hints at the ancient Canadian forest, is also lovely.
What’s more, Akin’s strategic deployment of this diverse cast blurs the lines of race and gender, giving the words of white men new meaning by sometimes placing them in the mouths of black and female actors. But the material limits him from achieving indelible effect he was able to produce on the same stage last season with Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold… and the Boys.”
Standouts include Travis Seetoo and Jonah McIntosh, who portrayed an array of villains and heroes with acrobatic panache, as well as sensitive performances from Donna Belleville and Sharry Flett. Cherissa Richards, Jeremia Sparks and Marla McLean round out the talented cast.
If you’ve got the stamina to struggle through it, the show contains plenty of worthy moments. Chief among them is one chronicling a farmer’s journey to the United States, portrayed here as a land of lotus-eaters filled with smarmy characters extolling the virtues of socialism – a role Canada is now all too happy to play.
But there are too few of these moments to keep the production moving. By the time we’re halfway through, listening to an awkward hip-hop presentation of the rebels’ list of grievances, it’s too late to be salvaged.
Ultimately, the failures of “1837” have nothing to do with whether people are interested in seeing Canadian theater or just saying they want to see it. A great story is a great story, no matter what country it comes from. It simply deserves a better telling.
"1837: The Farmers' Revolt"
2.5 stars (out of four)
Drama about a failed rebellion in 19th century Canada, runs through Oct. 8 in the Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $35 to $117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit shawfest.com.