A new Catalyst Theatre production. Their first show in the Maclab Theatre intimate thrust stage at the Citadel. Part of the Citadel subscription series. It didn’t matter what it was going to be about; I was going to see it for sure.
The fact that it was about the Black Donnellys of 19th century southwestern Ontario, their feuds with neighbours and their brutal mass murder, was a bonus. I grew up in southern Ontario, and this was one of the true-crime stories that my classmates did fascinated book reports on (that and the story of Evelyn Dick and the murder of her husband even closer to home in the 1940s). Although I hadn’t actually read The Black Donnellys, The Donnellys Must Die or James Reaney’s play cycle, I felt familiar with and connected to the story. And with that superficial knowledge acquired as a young person, I think I probably reconciled the story in my brain as “fair” on some level – a family of outlaws commits various crimes on their law-abiding neighbours and gets murdered because of it.
But partway through last night’s first preview performance of Jonathan Christenson’s new rock musical about the family, I changed my mind. Christenson’s version provided some sympathetic portraits of the young immigrants James and Johanna Donnelly (David Leyshon and Jan Alexandra Smith) fleeing their feuding families in Co. Tipperary, Ireland for a fresh start in Canada, discouraged and cheated in acquiring Ontario farmland, and discovering their immigrant neighbours tenacious in the grudges of the Old Country. As in the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the family’s strengths (fierce loyalty to each other and determination to succeed) are also the qualities leading inevitably to their downfall. The performance made me care about them and mourn them.
So that’s the story. But it was a Catalyst Theatre production, with Jonathan Christenson credited as writer, director, composer, and librettist, and the Catalyst design aesthetic expressed in ragged near-colourless layers of costume by Narda McCarroll, in cold stark lighting by Beth Kates, and in the spare barn-skeleton set by Christenson and James Robert Boudreau, so it was told with style. I’ve seen two other Catalyst productions, The Soul Collector and Nevermore: the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe (which is playing off-Broadway until the end of March). I found Vigilante more passionate and more accessible than either of them, but still stylized and atmospheric. Like the other two plays, much of the story is told in narration to the audience, in this case mostly by eldest son William Donnelly (Carson Nattrass). Most of the text seems to be prose, unlike Nevermore which is full of rhyming couplets. And there was music. The music played by Matthew Skopyk, Morgan Gies, Emily Siobhan McCourt, Nathan Setterlund, and Kurtis Schultz had elements of screeching hard-rock guitar, frenetic Irish-dance fiddle, lyrical love-duet poetry, and persistent compelling drumming, and there was singing and movement. I don’t have a very good memory for tunes, so I can’t recall anything well enough to sing it today, but I wish I could. Oh, except for the repeated motif “tick…tock… goes the clock … light the lamp and lock the lock …” I loved the music, despite some occasional difficulty hearing the singers over the band in the first act. There were also a few moments where the music, the powerful movement in boots, and the industrial shadow-lit set reminded me of the U of A’s recent Studio Theatre production of Threepenny Opera.
Neighbours and adversaries of the Donnellys were played by the same actors who also played the six sons, Nattrass (William), Scott Walters (Tommy), Kris Joseph (Daniel), Eric Moran (Robert), Lucas Meeuse (Johnny), and Benjamin Wardle as the youngest Michael. All of the characters in the story had accents with enough Irish features to be credible yet comprehensible, consistent with growing up in an immigrant community. The Donnelly sons also swore a lot when they were angered or when being wound up to fight by their mother. Sometimes the modern-sounding vulgarities made audience members giggle nervously, and pulled me out of the story a bit.
The action started slowly in the first act, with William and his brothers giving an introductory narrative then Johanna and James falling in love in Ireland despite family opposition. Things speeded up after intermission, with the family members’ doom coming closer and more unavoidable.
Vigilante is playing at the Citadel until March 29th. Tickets are available here. Tonight (Sunday March 8th) is the Pay What You Can performance, and I would imagine that the ticket line-up for that at the Citadel box office is forming as I write. I liked it and I found it challenging, so I’m trying to figure out if I have time to see it again. But on this week’s calendar I also have Fiddler on the Roof, The Falstaff Project, First Time/Last Time, and a U of A Drama production of A Winter’s Tale, and before the end of the month also Arcadia, dreamplay, and Book of Mormon. So much theatre, so little time.
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