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Louis Riel:
A Comic Strip Play

Comic book as stage play succeeds in 2D

By Byron Toben

Chester Brown’s best selling 2003 comic book has found new life as a puppet presentation on stage. But these aren’t your 3D string marionettes or hand puppets. They are clever 2D cut-outs on sticks in the style of Brown’s drawings, which were intentionally flat as in Harold Gray’s popular Little Orphan Annie.

Besides heads of the key characters, there are representations of horsemen, trains and armed fighters. Under the direction of Zack Fraser, who also created the puppets, this innovation works. Original music by Tristan Capacchione serves to non-obtrusively cement the audience’s attention.

Under the direction of Zack Fraser, who also created the puppets, this innovation works.

The cardboard principals are manipulated by five excellent actors in the manner of the black clad Japanese Bunraku but without the hoods so we can see who they are. Louis Riel himself is voiced by Charles Bender — and what a fine job he does. Popular META winner Cat Lemieux handles Gabriel Dumont, Riel’s military colleague well, and also several other characters, as does actor and established puppeteer Anne Lalancette. Jon Lachlan Stewart (who played James Joyce in the Segal’s Travesties) incarnates Riel opponents in Ottawa — John A. MacDonald and in Manitoba — John Schultz and Thomas Scott. Jimmy Blais (from Teesri Duniya’s State of Denial) enlivens multitudinous crowds of settlers and combatants.

Louis Riel puppet play

The cardboard principals are manipulated by five excellent actors in the manner of the black clad Japanese Bunraku but without the hoods so we can see who they are.

The show, as was the graphic novel, is bilingual, depending on the characters. I would guess about 65% English.

Riel, sometimes called the most famous Canadian in history, was born in Manitoba, spent time in Montreal and the USA (where he became naturalized as a citizen) and instigated, as a last resort after unfruitful attempts at reasonable negotiations, the Red River rebellion in Manitoba and later, the North West rebellion in Saskatchewan. His tale entwines strands of ethic cleansing, imperial land grabs, Protestant vs. Catholic enmity, railroad building, fears of U.S. expansionism and latter day messianic delusions.

The whole comprises a sort of a charming Riel for Dummies compendium, which even astute Westmount Magazine viewers, who are definitely not Dummies, would do well to view as a reminder of this key figure’s influence even after his hanging in 1885.

Click to listen to Phil Boyer’s folk song about Riel.

Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Play continues at Théâtre La Chapelle from March 1 to March 5.
Tickets: 514 843-7738 or billetterie.lachapelle.org

Images: Sabrina Reeves


Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.



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