Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Cold War at SFU Woodward's

Toronto playwright Michael Hollingsworth's The History of the Village of Small Huts is a 21-play cycle on Canadian history from contact to Brian Mulroney. Each play has a cast of 25-30 and is composed of a series of short, tableau-like scenes that sometimes number in the hundreds, cumulatively animating a stretch of time that might span just a few years or several decades. In the process, we are introduced to the key political elites during the period, as well as various social others, Hollingsworth's exposing of the machinations within Canadian corridors of power always juxtaposed against a counter-history from below.

In the case of The Cold War, on through March 1st at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Theatre in a Contemporary Arts mainstage theatre production directed by DD Kugler, this dialectic of history from above and history from below can be found in the alternating through-lines of the rise and fall of Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (a wonderful Kiki Al Rahmani, who captures the Chief's trademark voice perfectly) and the journey from domestic bliss to nightmare of housewife Mary Muffet (an affecting June Fukumura). Sold on the postwar dream of the suburban nuclear family, Mary's happiness begins to slide in inverse proportion to the number of household consumer items her neanderthal husband (just back from the war and now working on the Avro Arrow) buys her. Eventually she is committed to the psychiatric care of Dr. Ewan Cameron (a gleefully over-the-top Carmine Santavenere, with a spot-on Scottish accent), who infamously led CIA-funded experiments with LSD and sleep deprivation on scores of unsuspecting patients at McGill.

Add to all of this a rogue's gallery of spies (including Igor Gouzenko and Gerta Munsinger), RCMP surveillance operatives, beatniks, and four self-aggrandizing, power mad, or just plain mad Prime Ministers (Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, Diefenbaker, and Lester B. Pearson), and you have the makings of a story that is all the more operatic because it's true. Not that Hollingsworth doesn't have his own ideological take on the proceedings--his portraits of Diefenbaker (the arch defender of Canadian sovereignty) and Pearson (portrayed as a politically grasping dupe of American interests) might strike many as surprisingly revisionist. But that's partly the point--to paint with broad political strokes in order to incite interest in and debate on a history most Canadians ignore.

The stylistic strokes are equally broad. As per the name of Hollingsworth and Co-Artistic Director Deanne Taylor's company, VideoCabaret, the plays in the Small Huts series are meant to be presented on a framed black-box stage that resembles a TV set. A succession of tight spots illuminate the characters within any given scene in a montage-like sequence, with the acting largely presentational and  pantomimic. That is, dialogue is spoken out to the audience and the wonderful student actors--in white face paint and sporting a succession of false mustaches and wigs--contort their faces into exaggerated masks and plant or shimmy their bodies in commedia-like poses that immediately telegraph their roles to the audience. It's the perfect form for Hollingsworth's caustic wit and satiric commentary and this production captures it all with exuberant panache.


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