Reviewed by on    Opera, Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

Photo by David Cooper

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

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