Mac Fyfe returns to his Dora Award–winning role as the charismatic Canadian prime minister in VideoCabaret’s satirical history lesson, Trudeau and Lévesque.
VideoCabaret: Trudeau and Lévesque
Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
Runs to June 13
You’re sitting across the table from Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the 15th prime minister of Canada, and he’s just as cool and charismatic as you’d imagined.
“So, what would you like to talk about? The Just Society?” he asks in that famously suave voice, giving a signature shrug of the shoulders. Thrilled by the offer, you’d love to engage him in an in-depth discussion of his vision for Canada. The only thing is, you’re a bit thrown off by the fact that he’s wearing bright red lipstick and black eyeliner, while his face is covered in the white greasepaint of a clown.
No, this is not some strange dream brought on by catching a rerun of CBC’s Trudeau biopic after a performance by Cirque du Soleil. You’re talking to Mac Fyfe, star of VideoCabaret‘s Trudeau and Lévesque, who’s taking a lunch break during rehearsals at the Young Centre and keeping his makeup on for convenience’s sake.
“It’s an ordeal to take it off, so we just leave it on,” Fyfe explains, although it causes some confusion when he and his fellow cast members step outside the theatre for a cigarette. “Somebody just handed Cyrus [Faird] two bucks,” he says. “They must have thought he was a mime on a break.”
The whiteface, along with cartoonish wigs and oversized props, are part of VideoCab’s trademark theatrical style, in which they give a grotesque, satirical spin to Canadian history. Fyfe first played the dashing PM last season in the company’s hit production Trudeau and the FLQ, which won him a Dora Award. Now he’s back for the sequel, revolving around the 1980 Quebec referendum, which chronicles the clash between Trudeau’s federalist vision of a united Canada and Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque’s separatist dream of an independent Quebec. It’s a juicy backroom look at the machinations and intrigue behind their historic struggle, complete with a sexy spy, a high-placed RCMP informant, and a Watergate-style break-in. At the same time, it also follows the ongoing soap opera of Trudeau’s May–September marriage to young West Coast hippie Margaret, a pot-smoking free spirit who flees boring Ottawa to party at Toronto’s El Mocambo with the Rolling Stones.
The show, now in previews and opening Saturday, is especially timely given that Justin, Trudeau’s oldest son, is heading into his first federal election as leader of the Liberals, while Margaret Trudeau has just published a new memoir/self-help book. It may also be an eye-opening experience if, like Fyfe, you grew up clueless about the Trudeau saga.
“I didn’t really know about him,” the 35-year-old actor sheepishly admits. “I just knew he was a very respected prime minister. It’s astounding, the lack of political knowledge that young people have, or even knowledge of Canadian history. We have no concept, because it’s so whitewashed and boring in school. They don’t really get into the nitty-gritty.”
VideoCab is the opposite—the legendary Toronto troupe is all about the nitty-gritty. Playwright-director Michael Hollingsworth’s irreverent Canadian history lessons, a 12-play cycle known collectively as The History of the Village of the Small Huts originally staged in the 1980s and ’90s, are notorious for capturing the unflattering side of the country’s profile. Deanne Taylor, the show’s associate director and Hollingsworth’s creative/life partner, says Hollingsworth went back and did some major revisions to Trudeau and Lévesque—which was first produced (as Trudeau and the PQ) in 1997—to incorporate more of the dirty secrets about the era that have since come to light, including the fact that future Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau’s ex-mistress spied on the FLQ terrorists for the RCMP.
But while the Small Huts plays delight in exposing the clay feet of Canada’s political giants, Trudeau has proven a hard subject for their satirical sledgehammer. “He doesn’t have enough flaws,” says Taylor, who has joined Fyfe for this lunchtime interview. “Trudeau didn’t fail enough. We’re coming at him just as strong as we did with Sir John A. Macdonald and Mackenzie King, but he just won’t fall over. Sometimes you just have to let characters like him be heroic.”
Fyfe, perhaps not surprisingly, has become a Trudeau admirer. “Canada is a newish country, and for a long time the world looked to Canada for reason over passion,” he says. “I think Trudeau really embodied that. He came from a point of really thinking things out, from saying, ‘What are the real problems? Let’s remove them’—which is what he did with [the patriation of] the constitution and [instituting] bilingualism. And he believed Canadians should be free in their country. He wanted a charter of rights to protect everybody’s rights, whether they’re minority Anglos in Quebec or Italians in Toronto—everybody. If you were on board with that, then you could say, ‘That’s a strong Canadian identity. That’s our real national character.’ And I think that’s the right path—or at least I’ve been persuaded that it is by the character I’m playing,” he adds with a laugh.
Fyfe is a VideoCab vet who has done six of the Small Huts shows, including this one, and appeared in eight productions (if you count two remounts). He was in the 2013 re-staging of The War of 1812—which inaugurated VideoCab’s tenure at the Young Centre as guests of Soulpepper Theatre—and he’ll star in a remount of Trudeau and the FLQ that begins May 12 and runs in rep with Trudeau and Lévesque. His connection with the company goes back to his childhood—his mother, well-known Toronto actress Nancy Beatty, performed in the premiere of Part VIII of the Small Huts cycle, WWII, in the 1990s.
“I was babysat by VideoCab,” he recalls. “I remember one night, my mom was onstage and my dad plopped me down in a seat and went to the bar, because he’d already seen the show. For a 10- or 11-year-old kid, it was mind-boggling. And it’s still like nothing else out there. The content is very important, but the form is shockingly fresh and original. Of course, I’m a little biased.”
Fyfe, who is also a film and television actor, shaped his Trudeau impersonation by watching the plentiful news footage of the prime minister. His performance follows in the footsteps of some celebrated previous Trudeaus, notably Colm Feore in that 2002 CBC movie and the late Linda Griffiths in her hit 1980s solo show Maggie and Pierre. Fyfe feels that the VideoCab style, with its black-box stage and pinpoint lighting, allows him to be both theatrically flamboyant like Griffiths and cinematically precise like Feore.
“You can go really huge if you want, but you can also bring it down to a close-up,” he says. “You can whisper, almost, and draw people in. You’re so well lit, everybody can see and hear you, and it’s a very intimate environment.”
Taylor says that no one in the Trudeau family has seen the VideoCab shows to date, although local Liberal MP Adam Vaughan and others have promised to invite Justin. The two shows give a good indication of the huge legacy the Liberal leader has inherited and the lingering anti-federalist sentiments he has to grapple with in Quebec.
“When I see his speeches in Quebec, Justin is his father’s son,” Taylor says. “To say there, ‘I’m a federalist,’ is still like saying, ‘I stink.’ They call him a sellout and a traitor, just as they called his father a traitor for 50 years. He’s taken that from childhood and he’s still taking it. It’s not an easy stance. He may look lightweight to the English-Canadian pundits, but you see the steel of someone standing up for the whole country when he’s in Quebec.”