Review: Confederation Part I: Confederation & Riel (Soulpepper/Video Cabaret)

photo from Confederation part 1Soulpepper Theatre presents a revealing look at Canadian history on stage in Toronto

It’s hard to sell me on any history lesson, having barely skimmed by it in high school, but if the cast of Confederation Part I: Confederation & Riel was teaching the class I’m sure I would have passed with flying colours. Not only because the colour scheme of the piece was eye catching and beautiful, but because the performance kept me engaged through the entire two acts, at fifty minutes each.

I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing a Video Cabaret piece a few years back, and although the exact title escapes me I recall enjoying it just as much. The characters are most definitely stylized caricatures of the famous historical figures many of us were forced to read about in our early teenage years. With their stark white faces and exaggerated eye makeup the lighting accentuated every facial tick, making every movement meaningful and engaging.

I was particularly impressed upon hearing the same actors play in both parts (See: Confederation Part II: Scandal & Rebellion) and had officially opened Part II the evening before. Any actor learning four hours of text would be difficult, but then throw in this very intricate style, and about twenty separate costume and wig changes.

Both my friend and I found the entire cast a splendid mix of talent. It was stacked full of experienced actors who perform all over the country. We both specifically loved Jaime Cavanagh’s portrayal of Wilfrid Laurier, capturing an outrageous, yet charming gentleman, who just could not stop reading, partnered with the ever-lovely Kat Letwin, creating some great comedic chemistry. But that being said, all cast members had their shining moments making the entire ensemble a compact machine, embellishing each other around every corner.

I praise the company for casting Métis artist Michaela Washburn, perfectly cast as Louis Riel, which we got to see defend the Métis land over the wicked John A. MacDonald. Not only is the representation great but Washburn has such a stoic, captivating quality, and she captured the growth from child to man flawlessly.

I was also delighted, as someone trained in a music background, from the moment we stepped into the theatre because the soundtrack that underscored the entire piece really capped off the show. Twisting and turning some classic tunes, most notably ‘Oh Canada’, into a minor melody, at points when tension was apparent in the story.

I would have loved to have more personal knowledge of the history of the piece so I could have better understood some of the jokes. There were times I would catch the audience laughing at moments that ended up flying over my head. But other than that, I actually left the theatre with more understanding over the creation of the county I call my home (and maybe not being too proud of it in the long run). Although a lot of the story itself was included in the program for this reason exactly. I still enjoyed the show, even without being a history buff.

With Canada 150 just passing I would recommend this show to anyone who may not want to skim hours of a textbook to really feel the impact of what happened. The show also is set in a very dark theatre so you can’t avoid seeing every wonderful ruffle of clothing. Fun, informative and animated, it’s an interesting night of theatre you just may not be expecting.

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Photo of Michaela Washburn, Jamie Cavanagh, Richard Alan Campbell, Linda Prystawska, Greg Campbell, Kat Letwin, Richard Clarkin by Michael Cooper.

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