Vigilante at the NAC. Mythology trumps history in this outstanding production

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

 


Jan Alexandra Smith and the Donnelly brothers
GP Photography

It’s not just that the figures come out of the darkness. It’s rather
that they are marching in deadly and ritualized rhythm from some
hellish void, with a few musicians, mistily visible in the murky
backwaters of the NAC Theatre stage, eerily urging them along.
You’re gripped immediately by the beginning of Vigilante. And this
enthralling production from Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre continues to
hold you like a vice through to its powerful climax. But you soon
realize that there will be no real light at the end of this tunnel.
The 19th Century saga of Southern Ontario’s turbulent Donnelly family
can hold no promise of cathartic release. Indeed, well over a century
later, this bloody tragedy continues to cast a shadow over Biddulph
township and its people, many of whom reportedly refuse to discuss it
even now.

Vigilante is an astonishing piece — a product of the fertile
vision of Catalyst’s artistic director. Jonathan Christenson. He
supplied the book, music and lyrics. He composed the vocal
arrangements and, along with music director Matthew Skopyk, created
the memorable orchestration — elements that add further substance to
the music’s cunning fusion of a contemporary rock sensibility with a
ghostly Celtic timelessness. Finally, Christenson has staged this
Alberta import brilliantly — and it proves to be among the most
outstanding pieces of theatre ever mounted at the National Arts
Centre.
Vigilante is venturing into murky historical waters here, but perhaps
the Donnelly horrors invite nothing less. The basic facts may seem
clear: the Black Donnellys were a turbulent Irish immigrant family
whose presence caused mayhem in the rough-hewn, adversarial culture of
Southern Ontario and ultimately led to their massacre on Feb. 4, 1880,
by an enraged mob of vigilantes. There were eye witnesses to the
crimes — but no convictions.
These grisly events remain the stuff of folklore. They have triggered
countless books — the most celebrated of which is Thomas P. Kelly’s
historically questionable 1954 best-seller, The Black Donnellys,
depicting a 33-year reign of terror that saw James and Johannah
Donnelly and their sons employing “brute force to brawl, steal, burn
and murder their way into the dark side of Canadian history.” This
bloody saga has also moved into popular culture , inspiring songs from
the likes of Stompin’ Tom Connors and Gene MacLellan, and an NBC
television series. And there have been significant stage treatments,
with this the latest.
There are those who may see Catalyst’s take on the story to be overly
sympathetic to the family — offering James Donnelly, portrayed here
by David Leyshon with a certain ragged nobility, as a well-intentioned
idealist who flees Ireland to Canada in the hope of a better life for
himself and his family only to to have these dreams subverted by
sinister agencies over which they have no control. But Christenson’s
script is scarcely that simplistic. Truth remains elusive when it
comes to this troublesome family. In Vigilante, the
oldest son, Will, portrayed with sardonic wit by an impressive Carson
Nattrass, surfaces as a spectral narrator of sorts — but how much
of what he tells us can we believe? When it comes to perceptions,
participants from all sides in this bloody saga can be seen as
self-serving.
When mythology trumps history, a different dynamic takes hold.
Consider Wyatt Earp and his disposal of the infernal Clanton family
during the famed gunfight at the OK Corral. It has become a seminal
event in the history of the American West, but the story has been
subjected to endless variations — most notably in a succession of
major Hollywood releases. John Ford, who directed one of the most
famous of these films, My Darling Clementine, was later responsible
for that autumnal masterpiece. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a
film famous for the dictum — “when the legend becomes fact, print the
legend.”
But which legend? In creating Vigilante, Jonathan Christenson finds a
kinship with Canadian poet and playwright James Reaney whose Donnelly
Trilogy left its own mark on Canadian theatre more than four decades
ago. There’s recognition in both works that the Donnellys do not rest
easily within the constraints of conventional naturalism. They belong
in a mythic, stylized universe. Reaney, also a revered poet, found his
own theatrical language, heavy on symbolism and the devices of
classical theatre, in bringing an almost Rashomon-like complexity to
the story.
In the case of Vigilante, it has a contemporary urgency in its
telling. But it also invokes powerful devices as old as theatre
itself. Those chanting choruses — razor-sharp in articulation and
enhanced by the spooky musical back-up provided by conductor Matthew
Skopyk and his five musicians — owe their legacy to the ancient
Greeks. And Christenson and choreographer Laura Krewski bring an
enhanced yet fluid visual style to the raw emotions that drive the
material.
The ensemble quality of this production is superb, with the eight
performers portraying the Donnellys also moving confidently and
seamlessly into other characterizations, including the most dangerous
of their adversaries. But there is one towering performance — from Jan
Alexandra Smith. She is the one woman in the cast, and she is
implacable and terrifying in the role of Johannah Donnelly — and again
mythology takes hold here. She is the ferocious embodiment of
matriarchal power, an earth mother to be feared as she stands up to
the townsfolk, turns her boys into an avenging army, and rejects any
possibility of compromise and decency in her ravaged world. Smith’s
Johanna is not an admirable figure — but she is a compelling one, so
compelling that it’s easy for us to forget that it was a land grab by
the Donnellys that launched them on their path to destruction.
But another terrible story is also playing out on the stage of the NAC
theatre — a story in which tribal hatreds make their way from 19th
Century Ireland over the water to Southern Ontario. “There’s no law in
Ireland,” a beleaguered James Donnelly declares before emigrating to
Canada. But this divided Catholic community in Southern Ontario offers
no respite — not with militant members of the dreaded Whiteboys
society showing up there and seeking to transfer their own violent
views on land ownership and religion to the New World. So ultimately,
Vigilante is about land and tribalism —the same issues that were to
send the Donnellys fleeing Ireland, the same issues that continue to
plague parts of the world in the 21st Century.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that Vigilante’s physical landscape
suggests a wreckage of the human spirit — a chaos of dislodged beams
and scaffolding, punctuated by piercing shafts of light courtesy of lighting
designer Beth Kates. There’s a grey, dank, clammy feel to all this,
and it extends to the uncompromising costumes of Narda McCarroll. The
gods are in bleak charge here as the inhabitants of this world work
out their dreadful destinies. It makes for marvellous theatre.

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:
Johannah Donnelly…………………………………………Jan Alexandra 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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