Fight On! – Part One,
an epic accomplishment
Infinitheatre presents the impressive first part of Francis Dickens’ Canadian adventure
By Byron Toben
What do you think of Western Civilization?“
– “I think it would be a very good idea.
This famous quip is woven into the text of this epic drama, which deals with the near genocidal treatment of the original native inhabitants of Canada. Guy Sprung, the artistic director of Infinitheatre, is both the writer and director of this fascinating adventure.
Fight On! – Part One
Unlike the recent fine but confusingly entitled workshop Oedipus – Part One: Assembly at the Centaur, which has no Part Two, Fight On! has an already scripted Part Two for production in 2019 and a planned combined showcase of the two together in 2020. Mr Sprung has been working on this project for several years and had originally envisaged a three-part series.
However, Mies Van der Rohe’s famous quip “Less is More” prevailed and Parts One and Two, both billed as workshop productions, have emerged.
Part One is so polished I did not view it as a preliminary workshop production. Sprung who, in a former life, founded Toronto’s Shakespeare in the Park before moving to Montreal to build Infinitheatre on the foundation of Marianne Ackerman’s Theatre 1774, has used both proven and new theatrical devices here.
Charles Dickens produced fourteen great novels (and one unfinished). He also sired nine children (a tenth expired in infancy). His third son Francis “Frank”, after a brief spell in India as a Bengal Lancer, returned in London for an aimless life as a drunk. He finally secured a commission to emigrate to Canada and join the Northwest Mounted Police.
I saw a one-man play, Dickens of the Mounted by humorist Eric Nicol, at the 2007 Fringe. Mildly amusing, it was a pencil sketch compared to Sprung’s huge oil canvas. In Fight On!, Frank’s only keepsake from his deceased father is a watch with the motto “Fight On” emblazoned on it. It serves him well on his journey to Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto and finally the Great Prairies.
Though they be but nine, they enact some 70 roles. Sprung has blended a talented cast of Infini regulars with some well-chosen newcomers.
The short, limping, stuttering Frank, basically inept but somehow empathetic, is brought to life by Daniel Brochu.
All eight others play multiple roles, enhanced by semi masks, bringing a sort of ancient Greek tragedy feel to what is otherwise a docudrama approach ala Annabel Soutar, less the drawn from real life dialogue. Brechtian influence, of course, is also felt.
Howard Rosenstein, shades of Hamlet, plays the ghost of Frank’s famous father, not limited to walking ramparts at midnight. Quite a change from his Kafka’s Ape role, set to tour Japan and China.
Shawn Campbell, a Stratford alum, though masked, is identifiable as the tallest of the ensemble.
Anana Rydvald, famous for her own one-woman masked shows, did not create the evocative masks in this one. (That fell to the U of Calgary’s Brian Smith.)
The above four have a number of credits with past Infini shows.
‘Part One is so polished I did not view it as a preliminary workshop production.’
New here are:
Ivan Smith plays several native chiefs as well as “Lord Duffering”, a spoof on Dufferin. (Mr Smith oft played a dissipated nightclub singer in Danette MacKay’s now terminated and sorely missed Kiss My Cabaret series.)
Brefny Caibou-Curtin, a Cree-Irish from Toronto is a storyteller as well as an actor.
Carmen Grant, a Stratford alumna, played 21 characters in The Syringa Tree, good practice for her many here.
Tyson Houseman, a Montreal Cree performer and puppeteer. A Concordia grad, his roles here include Sir John (Eh) Macdonald (recently tried posthumously on CBC’s Ideas “for Crimes against Humanity by deliberately starving reservation natives in Saskatchewan”.)
Patrick Abellard, a Dawson grad, here plays Louis Riel, which presumably will be an expanded role in Part Two.
Sprung’s script is enhanced by frequent “Sardonic, Ironic and Iconic” counterblogs by actor/writer Drew Hayden Taylor which appear on screens in 19th century script from time to time. Select spoken phrases from Dickens père works are also interjected (best of times, worst of times, etc.) as Frank cannot escape from Charles’s fame.
Infini’s new home at the former Knox church has allowed for quite different staging for each of their shows there thus far. The long isle down the length becomes a runway dividing the audience into two halves. At each end is a slightly raised stage for the various episodes, each backed by a screen allowing for memorable videos of city and prairie scapes, seasons, voyage by boat, train, coach, dog sled, and horse.
Despite the seriousness of the subject, lots of humour, both verbal and physical.
Kudos to the nine technical staff, particularly to Set Designer Cassandre Chatonnier, an arrival from France seven years ago.
Fight On! is a wonderful addition to the superb Montreal English theatre season thus far. Be it in large venues (Segal, Centaur) or small (Infini, Mainline), the META awards judges next November have their work cut out for them
Fight ON! – Part One continues at Espace Knox in NDG until April 22.
514 987-1774 or infinitheatre.com
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Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.