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The cast of 1837: The Farmers' Revolt.

David Cooper

3.5 out of 4 stars

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt
Written by
Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille
Directed by
Philip Akin
Ric Reid
The Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

I got more pleasure than I expected simply from watching a group of English-speaking Canadian actors play English-speaking Canadian characters in director Philip Akin's highly enjoyable production of 1837: The Farmers' Revolt. It's not something I've often got to see in 10 seasons of reviewing at the funny, old Shaw Festival.

This collective creation birthed at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille in 1973 tells the story of the Upper Canada Rebellion led by a Toronto-based newspaperman named William Lyon Mackenzie against the Family Compact.

Rick Salutin was the writer on – not of, he's noted – this show, which takes place all around where the Shaw Festival now sits. We hear the names of places such as Chatham, Goderich, Richmond Hill – and there's even a satirical scene about trying to get from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake and running into problems on the road. (It should be relatable to any audience member who has valiantly fought the traffic on the QEW in the pursuit of a Shavian soiree.)

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In a decade of excursions to Niagara-on-the-Lake, I've watched Shaw actors put on accents and portray major unrest unfolding in Dublin and Port Elizabeth and more minor reverberations of British colonialism in dozens of English drawing rooms – but this was my first time witnessing the dramatization of a colonial battle that took place at an intersection I bike past with regularity (the corner of Yonge and College in Toronto).

It only makes sense to fill in the story Shaw had dedicated itself to staging – "the birth of the modern world," the festival once called it; the slow decline and fall of the British Empire seems more accurate – a little from this side.

1837: The Farmers' Revolt is a social history told in an ensemble fashion. Mackenzie's there, played with colloquial Canuck charm by Ric Reid, but the play is really focused on the farmers, workers and rank-and-file Reformers who find themselves coming up against oligarchic unfairness and eventually pick up pitchforks to fight for responsible government.

There's not a weak link in the cast assembled at Shaw: Sharry Flett, a festival veteran now in her 28th season, takes to the play's physicality like a fish to water – and is very sweet as a young lass fresh off the boat from Scotland. The Canadian husband she meets at a Toronto dock for the first time is played by Marla McLean, who seems the quintessence of Ontario farmer. They make an unexpectedly touching pair.

Jeremiah Sparks got me laughing out loud playing an Upper Canadian farmer who goes down to the United States and marvels at the enterprise, religious freedom and democracy. (His baffled encounter with a runaway slave on the way is given an extra twist of irony given both are played by black actors here.)

Travis Seetoo emerges as a potential star in a variety of roles; he's outrageously limber as a parade of interrelated Upper Canadian commissioners, Legislative Council members, clerks, justices and solicitors – zipping and flipping about the stage with a self-satisfied smirk. Cherissa Richards shines in an agitprop interlude where she plays the Canadian dummy to Seetoo's British Imperialist ventriloquist – eventually finding her own voice thanks to Mackenzie. Hip hip hooray! In that scene more than any other, 1837's roots in the 1970s as a project of overtly nationalistic theatre-making is most apparent. Those who originally created the show related to the rebels, feeling oppressed or at least irritated by British words stuck in Canadian mouths at institutions such as, as Salutin wrote at the time, "Stratford – our national theatre – gobbling public money to become an acknowledged second best in another country's national playwright."

Hip hip hooray? While I sympathize to a point, it's hard to imagine such rhetoric now, the word "nation" so loaded internationally and yet somehow disarmed at home. Especially at the moment, I'm quite happy to live in a country where Conservatives introduce motions that "the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada," Liberals muse that we might be postnational and the NDP are more focused on First Nations.

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In this production of 1837, Akin tries to account for omission of the latter of the original script through choreography (by Esie Mensah) at the top of the show and Rachel Forbes's Woodland Art-inspired set. (Indigenous participation in this production would have more completely solved its lapses.)

A couple of less than convincing scenes in the first act aside, however, I found myself unexpectedly swept up in the drama of what is there in the original show, moved by these Upper Canadians who tried to make an independent country here even if I'm not entirely sure I wish they'd succeeded. It's quite engrossing and, despite my doubts, collectively-spawned work from Theatre Passe Muraille proves as ripe for re-examination as, say, Caryl Churchill's work with Joint Stock in the UK has. It's a good one to bring the kids to as well I think.

1837: The Farmers' Revolt ( continues to Oct. 8.

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