VideoCabaret's The Life and Times of Mackenzie King is a black-box experience, exploding with colourful costumes and technical tricks, that presents Canadian history saturated in satire.
If all high-school history classes in Canada were taught by Michael Hollingsworth, our generation would probably be less obsessed with which bearded Hollywood beau hunk did or didn’t deserve to be titled the World’s Sexiest Man and a little more interested in the figures of our nation’s social and political figures of yore.
In his epic 15-part series, The History of the Village of the Small Huts, 1918-1939, director/playwright Hollingsworth chronicled Canada’s historical events all the way from Chief Donnacona and New France to the Brian Mulroney era. Working with the theatre company he co-founded with Deanne Taylor, VideoCabaret, Hollingsworth released one part of the series each year from 1985 to 1999. Ignore any thoughts of Historica Heritage Minutes that come to mind. In VideoCabaret’s signature style of super-short vignettes—with actors delightfully made up in exaggerated makeup and costumes, their performances and script dripping in satire, all taking place under a stark white spotlight in an otherwise pitch-black box theatre—the iconic series is less like a textbook and more like a history class told through a bitter clown’s Twitter feed.
On now at The Cameron House is The Life and Times of Mackenzie King, the 10th chapter in the Small Huts series which, unsurprisingly, centres around the years of Canada’s 10th, and longest-leading, prime minister. Bookended by two world wars, it follows the political figures of the era—there’s Arthur Meighen, R.B. Bennett, Jacques Bureau, Lord Byng, a split-second teaser with Adolf Hitler, and of course the titular King—as well as the lives of the “common folk” (a.k.a., us) as they struggle through reintegration after the First World War, the Winnipeg General Strike, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and unemployment relief camps.
The VideoCabaret staging operates completely on the idea of “less is more”—with Andy Moro’s spot-on lighting providing the closest thing to a “set,” and the actors’ blocking set out by Hollingsworth consisting of, at most, a few steps from one spotlight to another. Meanwhile, Astrid Jansen’s makeup and costumes are based heavily in the concept of “more is more,” turning the cast into over-the-top comical caricatures that match their melodramatic performances. Set in such a contradiction of styles, the cast of six demonstrate their skills in quick changes, never missing a beat while embodying a dizzying variety of characters as diverse in physical appearance, speech, social standing, and mannerisms as, well, the history of Canada—including a gargantuan and gluttonous R.B. Bennett (bacon being his snack of choice) played by Jacob James; family man Joe Slomkovski (Mac Fyfe), who goes to uncomfortable lengths to keep his wife (Linda Prystawska) and grumbling daughter (Rick Alan Campbell) from going hungry; a sleazy Prohibition-era gangster, Al (Greg Campbell); and Mackenzie King himself (Paul Braunstein), a man who is just as concerned with contacting his late mother, being doted upon by his married neighbour, and his pet dog Pat as he is with Canadian politics. The chemistry between the entire cast makes such a demanding show, in technicality as well as performance, come off effortlessly.
VideoCabaret was once one of Canada’s most innovative independent theatre companies, breaking new ground in theatrical forms and styles. Today, they’ve been given the stamp of approval by some of the country’s most mainstream institutions—VideoCabaret will co-produce Hollingsworth’s The War of 1812 with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival next season, and Hollingsworth received the Silver Ticket Award at this year’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards. But at the tiny Cameron House backspace, The Life and Times of Mackenzie King is true to the VideoCabaret style of decades ago—a big, colourful gem hidden in the dark.