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by David S. Young
adapted from the novel by Alistair MacLeod
Vancouver Playhouse Theatre
April 15-May 6

Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief celebrates the Scots-Canadian heritage of two brothers whose lives have taken different paths.  Under Dean Paul Gibson’s imaginative direction, the Playhouse production of David S. Young’s fine stage adaptation is gloriously entertaining: a mélange of local colour, Gaelic music and ethnic bluster, and a moving story of family ties.

The play is narrated by middle-aged Alexander Macdonald (Allan Morgan), a Windsor dentist.  Visiting his alcoholic, derelict older brother Calum (Duncan Fraser) in a Toronto flophouse, Alexander explains in MacLeod’s lyrical prose how “voices from the past arrive unbidden.”  These appear as flashbacks to their Cape Breton childhood and their 1960s stint as hard rock miners in Northern Ontario.  But the past that shapes them goes much deeper, through generations of family and centuries of clan, a legacy “half history, half imagination.”

The tale unfolds on Pam Johnson’s beautifully painted set of blue-grey rock in front of flats depicting ocean surf.  Actions are mimed, and locations—a kitchen, a boat, a funeral—created by simply rearranging a few chairs.  Scenes flow seamlessly across time aided by Gerald King’s evocative lighting changes. Six actors play multiple characters, including the brothers’ grandparents and a rival group of Québécois miners.

“Everything you need to know about your people is inside the old songs,” Alexander’s Grandma (Janet Michael) explains to him, and many of the best moments involve the cast’s chanting, singing, and dancing those haunting songs in Alison Jenkins’ lovely arrangements, accompanied by Stephen-Guy McGrath’s fiddle.  When they bury a family member they “clap up” the dead man and dance him off to his death.  A confrontation between Macdonalds and Quebecers becomes a musical duel-off.

At the heart of the play is the brothers’ story.  Orphaned at an early age, they take different directions.  But “the blood is strong,” as the Scots like to say, and their lives are intertwined.

A strong physical presence with great vocal power, Fraser is magnificent as the ferocious Calum, heir to legendary 18th century ancestor Calum Ruadh. He tries to live the heroic highlander legend but can’t escape his own personal demons.  In a quieter, more cerebral way, Morgan is equally excellent as the sensitive younger brother marked for success.  Their relationship has all the complexity of real life, and the ending is dramatic and moving.

The other actors all have their moments, especially Fraser Mackenzie and Jonathan Teague as the boys’ very different grandfathers.

One thing I found little uncomfortable: the play’s constant celebration of Scottish pride and heritage makes a fetish of ethnic identity.  It’s the kind of thing that in the rest of the world can lead to terrorist bombing and ethnic cleansing. But of course this is Canada. 

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Sunday, April 23, 2006 6:21 PM
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