Review: The Speedy (UnSpun Theatre/World Stage)

Credit_Chris Hanratty and Shira Leuchter

UnSpun Theatre brings stories of The Speedy, a lesser known part of Canadian history, to Toronto’s World Stage

I remember Canadian history back in grade school and high school being very boring. It was all coureur des bois and maple syrup and the Family Compact. Even the wars seemed bloodless and tame. Maybe the curriculum was censored to prevent young brains from contemplating violence (as if young brains don’t do that all the time on their own) but it may have also been because telling an honest history of is mostly an account of how terrible white people are. The perfect antidote to my leftover school-days Canadian history malaise is inspired, beautiful theatre with integrity, such as The Speedy from Unspun Theatre, currently playing at World Stage.

The Speedy takes on a piece of the past that started right here, in the old town of York, when a boat named The Speedy departed for the settlement of Newcastle in 1804. The main reason for its voyage was to transport an Anishinaabe man to his trial and almost certain death by hanging. Ogetonicut was accused of murdering a white trapper, though of course the evidence was severely lacking.

Twenty of York’s most prominent citizens were onboard and Newcastle was being primed to become the new capital. The Speedy sank. Ogetonicut never saw the courtroom but died anyway, alongside his captors, and ten percent of the entire population of York. Newcastle didn’t become a town at all, much less the capital (it is not the same Newcastle that exists in Durham Region today.)

UnSpun Theatre has a huge bag of tricks and they know how to use them. When you enter the theatre it’s a museum, almost literally, displaying artifacts pertaining to The Speedy. The performers stand around and explain the significance of the items to you if you ask, just as if they were passionate curators (which, in fact, they also are). And then the lights go down and the play begins, but it’s not a play so much as a theatrical storytelling.

Using direct address, acting, choreography, soundscape, and recordings of conversations, the performer-creators tell the tale of The Speedy interwoven with their own personal stories relating to danger by water, and by authority. I very much appreciated their frankness in admitting that history is written by the winners; that the real truth can never be known; that our tendency, including their own, is to romanticize the past. Their ability to take all that in stride and attempt to recreate what it might have been like for Ogetonicut and his mother is admirable.

His mother is crucial because the reason for Ogetonicut’s alleged crime was revenge for his brother, who had been murdered by a white trapper. He had been promised justice by the white leaders, but it never came. So his arrest, impending hanging, and ultimate drowning, left his mother childless. When the performer playing her speaks in Ojibwe (translated for the audience) it is powerful.

Another of the more impactful sections is not from 1804 at all. It’s when the performers tell their own personal stories of brushes with drowning. They intercut each other, which builds awful/wonderful tension. I would be very wrapped up in the story about a truck that goes through the ice, then momentarily frustrated when that was interrupted, except the story now is about a white water canoeing trip and I did also want to know what happened there. One of the stories didn’t jive as well with the other three, just because it was pretty obvious no one’s life was actually at risk. The others, though, were various levels of harrowing.

There’s a decent amount of humour in the piece, especially when dissecting a published book of shipwreck stories that tells an overwrought, and outright racist, version of The Speedy’s sinking. I love the chance to laugh, that good release that opens up my emotions and lets me sink into the piece. And I sank right into this, much like The Speedy was swallowed by Lake Ontario two hundred and ten years ago.

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Photo provided by Chris Hanratty and Shira Leuchter.