Written composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson, produced by Catalyst Theatre (Edmonton) in collaboration with the NAC English Theatre
Massacre of the Donnelly family in Lucan, Ontario (1860) was one of the bloodiest crimes ever to take place in Canada. The fact that it was never solved has kept historians, writers and researchers interested for many years. As rumours grew, imaginations were fueled and the family of seven boys and their parents, who had emigrated from Ireland, were transformed into a local legend of monstrous killers who terrorized the community. Probably the best known work of fiction based on the murder, was the Donnelly Trilogy, a verse drama by James Reaney, first performed in 1973 -1974 and finally published in 2000. It came to the National Arts Centre many years ago but, as I remember, the impact of that event was minimal. The horror and the tragedy did not click with a production that mainly foregrounded the literary qualities of the text that explained the story.
Director, writer and composer Jonathan Christenson has taken a completely different approach.
He has turned the artistic expression of this crime into a magnificently powerful Rock Opera, a high energy physical performance backed up by five musicians on stage with their howling strings, a beautifully lyrical Irish whistle and resounding percussions that accompany the eight performers. The actors/singers who become the 2 Donnelly parents and six sons , take us far beyond the expectations of any daily reality, sending the bloody massacre soaring into the realm of epic violence that grows along with the experiences of this grieving family. Taunted by the old White boys secret society, victims of land manipulation and hate inherited from Ireland, later tortured by the nasty constable Carroll played by a most blood chilling Kris Joseph who was also the tough son Daniel, the boys and the father (David Leyshon ) somber into despair and helpless rage. They feel bound to listen to their ma Johannah Donnely, a brilliant Jan Alexandra Smith with the ringing soprano voice : “whatever happens, make sure the law can’t pin nothing on you” and “family comes first”. The tender love songs between father and mother were most moving moments , constrasting strongly with what followed. That is what the creators of this opera want us to understand. The atmosphere of the village drew them into this killer mentality as their desire for peace is trapped and finally they flounder into a raging fury that sets off a call for vigilante justice. They can no longer help themselves and the powerful emotion just takes your breath away.
The beginning set the atmosphere most powerfully. The deep vibrating percussions, the dark flashing blue lights, the wooden ruins of a burnt out barn and great puffs of smoke spew out on stage as the sound prepares us for the arrival of the boys. Six grungy figures lope out of the semi-darkness of death and come back to life: waving their arms, slinging about their chains, calling out in their impeccable Irish accents , pushing their fists, miming their emotions, stamping their feet in an energetic choreography which was as powerful as the words. The voices as much as the bodies, became physical instruments contributing to the excitement of the story. They have come back among the living to explain the terrible story and especially why they were driven by such terrifying vengeance .
Each number becomes an exciting moment where each spoken word is as powerful as an acoustic instrument playing in the background. There are high tones, and raspy tones, there are low growls and singing warbles, some voices roar, others screech, they are all powerful and exciting and they fit the movements of the chorus perfectly.
The final moment becomes a fiery frenzy of choreographed bodies , of flashing lighting effects, of deafening sound and then tragic sadness engulfs us all. What is worse of course is that this liberation of deadly energy, makes us realize how the boys and that family have ultimately become the symbolic spirit of evil, of destruction, of vengeance, of violence, the viscious killers who never change and never give up. Their final words: bolt the lock. Don’t let anyone else in. Isolated among ourselves we now incarnate vengeance. Isn’t this precisely the spirit that has been unleashed in all the corners of the world now?
Vigilante has understood something terrible. People can no longer flee. They can go nowhere, they are trapped as others seek them out to destroy them. It could be Syria, it could be in any other corner of the world. The trail leading to such a mentality is too readily available. Whether people are trapped in terrorism or in a war. This was a loving family at the beginning but it quickly became hateful, through no fault of its own. How is that possible?
There is a sense of wonderment at the force of the show but also a sense of profound sadness, if we listen closely to what Jonathan Christenson is telling us.
A magnificent Rock Opera should certainly go on to Broadway
Vigilante plays in the Theatre of the NAC until April 15, 2017
Read the French version published on the site www.theatredublog.unblog.fr http://theatredublog.unblog.fr/2017/04/03/vigilante-justiciers-texte-et-mise-en-scene-de-jonathan-christenson/
Jonathan Christenson Director, Orchestration, Vocal arrangements and musical director
Laura Kewski Choreographer
Mattew Skopyk Music producer, Additional Orchestration and Music Director
Wade Staples Sound Designer
Sarah Garton Stanley Dramaturg, Production
Narda Mccarroll Costume, Hiar and Makeup Designer
Beth Kates Lighting
Doug Mertz Dialect Coach
Jonathan Christenson Set Concept and realization
And James Robert Boudreau
Jan Alexandra Smith Johannah Donnelly
Kris Joseph Daniel Donnelly
David Leyshon James Donnelly
Lucas Meeuse Johnny Donnelly
Eric Morin Robert Donnelly
Carson Mattrass Will Donnelly
Scott Walters Tommy Donnelly
Benjamin Wardle Michael Donnelly