Power, Passion and Rocking Vigilante Justice

Reviewed by Iris Winston

Photo: DBP Photographics
Vigilante

Written, composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson. A Production of  Catalyst Theatre (Edmonton) in collaboration with NAC English Theatre

On February 4, 1880, an armed mob murdered five members of the Donnelly family and burned their farm to the ground. No one has ever been convicted for the massacre of the notorious Irish immigrants, despite two inconclusive trials. The vigilante justice imposed upon them was the culmination of an ongoing feud and conflict over land between the Black Donnellys and their neighbours in the township of Biddulph, southern Ontario.

In Vigilante, writer, composer, director Jonathan Christenson allows the white-faced ghosts of the Donnellys to tell their side of the story in a powerhouse of a rock opera. When James Donnelly came to the new land with his bride, Johannah, (once part of a rival gang in Ireland) he sought peace, they say, but the old resentments followed and the battles among the Irish immigrants and their cohorts continued. There was no escape from the rising spiral of conflict and murder.

That spiral is reflected in the throbbing rhythms, pulsating lights, arrow formations and progression towards revenge, even as the Donnellys seem to be more sinned against than sinning through the passions displayed by the fine ensemble of performers and musicians delivering the multi-talented Christenson’s dark vision.

As the matriarch of the clan, Jan Alexandra Smith is a powerful presence, pushing her sons to “get even” with their enemies, revenge their father’s death and fight to maintain their supremacy in the face of mounting hostility. Like Johannah, her boys sizzle with hate. They also slip easily into the various personas of their rivals as the tragic tale pulsates to its inevitable end.

The style and subject matter of Vigilante will not appeal to those who prefer their musicals to be more sedate and sunny, but there is no denying the impressive power and total cohesion of a work that demands attention and justifiably garners praise. Audiences may not leave the theatre humming. Instead, they are more likely to be vibrating and wondering about the truth of the history of a black mark on Canada’s 19th-century history.

Vigilante continues at the NAC theatre to April 15.

Director and music director (vocalists): Jonathan Christenson

Music director (orchestra): Matthew Skopyk

Set concept: Jonathan Christenson and James Robert Boudreau

Choreographer: Laura Krewski

Sound: Wade Staples

Lighting: Beth Kates

Costumes: Narda McCarroll

Cast:

Johsnnah Donnelly…………………………………………Jan Alexqandra Smith

Daniel Donnelly/Ensemble…………………………………Kris Joseph

James Donnelly/Fight captain………………………………David Leyshon

Johnny Donnelly/Ensemble…………………………………Lucas Meeuse

Robert Donnelly/Ensemble…………………………………Eric Morin

Will Donnelly/Ensemble…………………………………….Carson Nattrass

Tommy Donnelly/Ensemble…………………………………Scott Walters

Michael Donnelly/Ensemble………………………………..Benjamin Wardle

 

Musicians

Computer programming/keyboards/bass/banjo……………..Taylor Cochrane

Fiddle…………………………………………………………Allison Lynch

Percussion…………………………………………………….Kurtis Schultz

Guitar/bass/mandolin, tin whistle…………………………….Nathan Setterlund

Guitar…………………………………………………………Scott White


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