Through October 8
1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT Court House Theatre/Shaw Festival
For years, people in Western New York have seen Toronto as this peaceful place where the streets are clean and it’s a nice place to spend a weekend.
History says that isn’t necessarily true and the connections between the communities are more like Leafs and Sabres hockey fans in in the Cobblestone District some nights than sitting in a Mirvish theater for a musical.
The history of Ontario was long filled with violence and political violence fought out over impassably muddy streets in a province ruled by the oligarchic alliance known as The Family Compact.
That’s the story Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille tell in “1837: The Farmers’ Revolt,” the story of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.
Upper Canada is pretty much what’s now Ontario while Lower Canada was basically what’s now Quebec, where there was a different revolt that same year.
“1837’ is an often chaotic play with eight different actors playing all of the roles of a chaotic time.
The dominant performer is Ric Reid as William Lyon Mackenzie, the firebrand newspaper editor and politician and first mayor of Toronto who led the revolt and was forced to flee to Buffalo for help when the revolution fell apart.
He wound up becoming an important figure in American politics who eventually returned to Upper Canada to take part in the long runup to “responsible government” and eventually the formation of Canada 150 years ago, although he was dead by then.
It’s peculiarly Canadian that his grandson wound up the longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Even the Canadians in the Court House audience probably can’t keep track of all the players, as the performers morph from struggling farmers and laborers to the rich upper crust of colonial York and back.
That’s always the problem with these shows where performers bounce among different roles, with minimal changes in costumes and appearance.
It’s a similar problem to Shaw’s “The Madness of George III,” across the street in the Royal George Theatre, with many performers playing a lot of roles..
In the tight confines of the Court House, director Philip Akin and designer Rachel Forbes rely on the performances rather than the relatively minimal set, although that is ingenious.
If you really want to know more about the rebellion and Mackenzie, the Old Niagara Bookshop down the block can probably provide a history of the time.
For “1837,” you just have to sit there and let the story wash over you and ignore most of the individuals and follow the flow instead.
Akin has filled the show with some of the Shaw’s strongest performers, Reid, Sharry Flett, Donna Belleville and others, along with newer performers like the acrobatic Travis Seetoo.
“1837: The Farmer’ Revolt” is a fascinating and confusing look at one of those stages toward democracy, with some really dynamite performances.
It’s one of those Court House Theatre productions intended to make you think and this does.
It’s worth seeing (although it doesn’t hurt to Google the whole history).
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