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theatre review

VideoCabaret’s Trudeau and Lévesque is a follow up to 2014’s Trudeau and the FLQ.Michael Cooper

When we last saw Pierre Trudeau, this time a year ago, he had boldly invoked the War Measures Act, curtailed the Front de libération du Québec's brief reign of terror and found true love with a West Coast hippie half his age named Margaret Sinclair.

But in VideoCabaret's Trudeau and Lévesque, the smashing sequel to its 2014 hit Trudeau and the FLQ, the 15th Prime Minister of Canada isn't doing so hot. His vision of a united Canada is running up against René Lévesque's Parti Québécois, now in power in la belle province and threatening to put separatism to a vote. He's getting grief from the other premiers, who'd like to cut their own "sovereignty-association" deals. And to top it off, his wife, Margaret, has ditched him and their kids so she can shake her booty at Studio 54 and flirt with the Rolling Stones.

You've got to feel for the guy even if, as written by playwright Michael Hollingsworth and impeccably parodied by actor Mac Fyfe, he's kind of a lousy husband. Hollingsworth's sharply satirical takes on Canadian history – Trudeau and Lévesque is the 20th instalment in his legendary, 21-part History of the Village of the Small Huts – are the furthest thing from hagiographies, and yet his portrait of Trudeau here is largely flattering and often endearing. This Trudeau is witty rather than supercilious and even, at times, lovably naive. Imagine thinking you can win a federal election by having a Socratic dialogue with the voters.

With his other historical characters, however, Hollingsworth remains merciless. Richard Alan Campbell's temperamental, cigarette-toting Lévesque is at least seen as a compromising pragmatist, but his PQ buddy, Jacques Parizeau (Cyrus Faird), is a fat, mustachioed buffoon forever whining about "money and the ethnic vote." Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark (Craig Lauzon), meanwhile, is shown as an overearnest stumblebum learning French from a primer, while Aurora Browne's deliciously flaky Maggie Trudeau seems to float on a perpetual cloud of marijuana smoke.

The play also doesn't stint in the cloak-and-dagger department. In fact, Hollingsworth has rewritten his original script, which premiered in 1997 as Trudeau and the PQ, to add more dirt about the RCMP's efforts to discredit the separatist movement. Parizeau's notorious ex-lover-turned-police informer, Carole Devault, appears here as a slightly fictionalized character named Charlotte Petit (Linda Prystawska) who is seen planting dynamite on the FLQ and helping to steal membership files from the PQ office – a break-in that transpired even as the Watergate scandal was unfolding in the United States.

Obviously, this is not your Heritage Minutes approach to Canadian history. But what always impresses me about Hollingsworth's Small Huts plays is how carefully researched they are. And while as a director he stages them in whiteface, with comical costumes and clown-size props, they are serious attempts to grapple with the country's past. Think of them as the theatrical equivalent of nasty political cartoons that, under their gleeful grotesqueries, often cut straight to a fundamental truth.

The production is another display of VideoCab's amazing sleight-of-hand. My opening-night companion, unfamiliar with the company, assumed there was a large cast lurking backstage in the Young Centre's Tank House Theatre. Not so. The show's 40 characters are played by seven actors in a whirlwind of quick changes, hidden by the brief blackouts between scenes. Their caricatures are invariably hilarious and include Lauzon as a strutting Mick Jagger and Michaela Washburn as a staggering Keith Richards, who enters with an enormous hypodermic needle jabbed in his arm.

Then there's Fyfe, long-haired and purple-clad as Canada's hippest PM. The actor, who won a Dora Award last year for playing the role in Trudeau and the FLQ, not only nails the voice and mannerisms but captures the essence of the man. He lets us see how that shoulder-shrugging insouciance – that infamous arrogance – was the armour of a passionate and embattled visionary.

The wacky wardrobe and wigs by Astrid Janson and Alice Norton, respectively, are a delight as always. (Love that Lévesque comb-over.) Adam Barrett puts the video in VideoCab with historical newspaper headlines and television images projected on a scrim. (Love that Mary Tyler Moore Show clip.) Jake Blackwood honours Trudeau's multiculturalism with a dense soundscape that bounces from Edith Piaf to Guantanamera to – inevitably – classic Stones.

But this show is more than a blast from the past. With another federal election approaching and another Trudeau helming the Liberals, it's a potent reminder not only of Justin's legacy, but of our own, as well.

Trudeau and Lévesque runs to June 13 (