VideoCabaret may still be toiling away in the small cabaret space at the back of Queen West's vintage Cameron House, but it now is doing so with the seal of approval from the largest theatrical institution in the land.
In its 2012 season, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will present The War of 1812, a timely chapter of VideoCabaret artistic director Michael Hollingsworth's life's work, The History of the Village of the Small Huts.
If you haven't yet caught any of Hollingsworth's satirical cycle about Canadian history that he's been mounting and remounting for over a quarter of a century, The Life and Times of Mackenzie King, currently on at the Cameron House, is as good a place to start as any. It will allow you to be able to say you saw them when, anyway.
VideoCabaret's cartoonish aesthetic involves quickly flipping through short, staccato scenes staged in a small area framed by an old-fashioned television screen.
Actors wearing white makeup and Astrid Janson's exquisitely exaggerated costumes are picked out of the darkness by Andy Moro's pinpoint lighting. They perform in a broad style somewhat similar to that of sketch comedy. Hollingsworth calls it "the goons of history in their very own Goon Show."
The Life and Times of Mackenzie King, which had its first go-round in 1993, covers Canada in the years between the world wars.
The "great" men of the period represented include three prime ministers: Paul Braunstein as a spooky, self-absorbed King, Rick Alan Campbell as an ambitious and consistently outwitted Arthur Meighen, and Jacob James as a fat, bacon-loving R.B. Bennett.
The play also endeavours to show how the larger currents of history affect a pair of Canadian soldiers back from the trenches.
Joe (Mac Fyfe) and Vince (James) return from fighting for their King and country to find no work at home. They end up involved in the Winnipeg General Strike, then, when it ends bloodily, the disillusioned veterans sink into the city's criminal underworld of bootleggers and booze smugglers.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, slimy Minister of Customs and Excise Jacques Bureau – Fyfe again, with a hunchback and a wonderfully inappropriate French-Canadian accent – is getting rich by encouraging officials under his control to look the other way from the rum-runners. His appointment to the Senate after this scandal breaks leads into the famous constitutional showdown between King and Governor General Byng.
One of the main theses of Hollingsworth's cycle is that graft and boondoggles are a constant thread in Canadian politics no matter who's in power; it's a cynical position that's also almost impossible to refute.
The first half of the show is VideoCabaret at its very best – extremely funny, dark and light at once, with no clear heroes or villains; the second half, which covers the Depression years, is less tightly focused.
Joe ends up heading to a relief camp in British Columbia, so his wife (Linda Prystawska) and extremely petulant child (Campbell on his knees) can share the $3-a-week welfare that arrives, regardless of family size. He eventually gets involved in the camp workers' On-to Ottawa! trek, halted in Regina by the RCMP – his second encounter with violent Mounties.
When he next joins the volunteer Mac-Paps to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War, the play begins to break out with a case of the Forrest Gumps – does this one average Joe have to be everywhere?
As for the big-name Canadian goons, the titular PM is still the focus, even though Bennett's now in charge – leading to many slightly aimless scenes where Braunstein's King wanders around writing bizarre diary entries and frolicking with his dog Pat – an, admittedly, hilarious puppet. While VideoCabaret's approach is not known for its nuance, Iron Heel Bennett really gets the short end of the stick in James' grotesque performance. Given current headlines, the man's enduring legacies in the Canadian Wheat Board and the Bank of Canada might have deserved a shout-out.
The Life and Times of Mackenzie King ends abruptly with a preview of what some guy named Adolf Hitler has in store. It's a pity Hollingsworth's shows aren't permanently in rep, so we could find out what happens next right away. Are there any books about this Hitler guy?
The Life and Times of Mackenzie King runs until Nov. 27.
The Life and Times of Mackenzie King
- Written and directed by Michael Hollingsworth
- Starring Paul Braunstein
- At the Cameron House in Toronto