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theatre review

Mac Fyfe plays Pierre Trudeau, among others, in Michael Hollingsworth’s Trudeau and the FLQ, now playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.MICHAEL COOPER

As the Parti Québecois lurches toward the finish line in the latest Quebec election, VideoCabaret is reviewing the tape of an earlier chapter in the story of Quebec nationalism.

Trudeau and the FLQ, the swinging '60s and early '70s chapter of VideoCabaret artistic director's Michael Hollingsworth's series The History of the Village of the Small Huts, concerns itself with the rise of two powers out of Montreal – Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the Front de libération du Québec.

Mac Fyfe's brilliant burlesque of Trudeau makes this production a must-see, even if you've never attended any of Hollingsworth's previous history-cycle productions. Paddling across the stage with a canoe strapped to his stomach or simply flirting with the audience and pursing his lips, Fyfe captures Trudeau's insouciance in a clownish way that nevertheless remains intensely charismatic. I cackled with glee almost every time he appeared on stage as a man born too soon, made for the age of the duck-face selfie.

Hollingsworth's play depicts Trudeau's uneasy transition from man of words to man of action, from the Justice Minister who declared the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation to the Prime Minister who violated personal liberties under the sweeping War Measures Act. But the stirring nature of Trudeau's bilingual, multicultural vision of the country is here too – his bafflement at why French Canadians, who discovered the Rockies, would give up being part of a vast Canada and pen themselves behind the wall of a smaller, less geographically and culturally rich territory called Quebec. (Why is no one articulating this as passionately and as unapologetically today?)

For those who are unfamiliar with the project, Hollingsworth has been working on The History of the Village of the Small Huts for almost 30 years. He started by telling a story of Donnacona and New France in 1985 and ended with Brian Mulroney and Free Trade in 1999, then started again from the beginning for another generation of theatergoers. (After the success of the presentation of The War of 1812 instalment at the Stratford Festival in 2012, VideoCabaret moved operations from the back room at Toronto's Cameron House to Soulpepper's digs in the Distillery District.)

In the VideoCabaret style, real historical characters – played by seven actors, in a dozen roles each – appear in caricatured form wearing outrageous costumes (Astrid Janson's delicious designs), singled out in the darkness by pinpoint lighting in short, sharp (well, some are sharp) scenes. Hollingsworth's productions are carefully choreographed, but also have a looseness that allows long-time collaborators such as Jacob James, Greg Campbell and Richard Alan Campbell to show off their superior comic timing.

You've likely heard Marx's maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Well, Hollingsworth views the whole of Canadian history as dark farce. To a follower of the series only since its reboot, Trudeau and the FLQ seems almost dangerous as close and familiar and still-traumatic events are shown through a comedic lens. The terror attacks by the FLQ begin with a cartoonish depiction of a mailbox exploding, but Hollingsworth's idea is to gradually let the horror sink in, which it does.

The FLQ members we meet here, endlessly watching the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers to learn tactics, are painted as representatives of larger historical forces (decolonization, feminism, the sexual revolution) rather than individuals. In an interesting bit of doubling, Jacob James plays both an FLQ cell leader as a kind of demonic beat poet, and also the kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross. Michaela Washburn, meanwhile, gets to show two sides, as a squeaky and outmanoeuvred Lester B. Pearson, and as a defiant and brave Pierre Laporte.

My main complaint is that while the first act is entertaining and novel in its approach to the less naturally dramatic material, the second half becomes too much of history as one damn thing after another. While most of Hollingsworth's plays concern themselves with Canadian stories that we don't talk about often enough, the Trudeau era and October Crisis are almost too well-trod – at least the corners of it that are dramatized here. You also feel the absence of the rest of Canada: Where are the Aboriginal voices in this story? Where are the Western Canadian ones?

And yet, as familiar as the tale was to me (cameos of Robert Bourassa and René Levesque are hilarious highlights), it isn't to everyone. My friend who came with me told me that when she had seen Trudeau and the FLQ the first time around, at age 8 in 1996, it was how she learned about these events. Yes, everyone should bring their kids to see The History of The Village of the Small Huts and, if we're lucky, they'll be able to bring their kids too, in another generation.

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