By Joe Szekeres
A hot topic of an important Canadian History issue on a very warm evening.
During my undergraduate years at Western, I did manage to take one Canadian History course. Although that was over thirty years ago, I can still recall one of our controversial lectures with the professor who at that time didn’t mind carrying on with the topic at hand. The theme of the lecture:
“Canadian History is extremely boring compared to the history of the United States.”
On a very warm summer evening, I attended zietpunk Theatre’s history lesson on the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 to see if this statement rings true for the twenty-first century. If anything, writer Thomas McKechnie has certainly done his homework in the creation of a richly, dense text of information performed by Heather Marie Annis and Ximena Huizi in approximately 80 minutes with no interval.
Performed at the Owl’s Club (Bloor and Dovercourt Roads), the story (told in a Brechtian vaudeville style) celebrates the centennial anniversary of the six-week Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 and the uprising of the working class, especially of the immigrants and of the women involved. At times, we enter the world of many of the immigrant workers and their lives, while at other times information is presented to us and we are polled three times during the production to gauge our opinions.
Before the production begins, pianist Jesse Corrigan regales us with music from the era in an extremely warm auditorium. Throughout the production, Mr. Corrigan nicely underscores some of the dramatic intensity without pushing it way over the top. Kristine Schmitt also provided some important vocal work throughout the production. A piano is located far stage right. A banner which the inscription REMEMBERING THE WINNIPEG GENERAL is hanging up centre stage. A makeshift blackboard is also found up centre stage with costumes hanging from hooks on the left and right. Some costume changes take place behind the blackboard.
Mr. McKechnie’s research from my perspective appeared to be quite thorough. He has taken a great deal of information (I’m assuming primary and secondary sources) and created an informative and dramatic script. There were moments where so much information was given that I started to zone out for a few seconds as I didn’t know if my brain could absorb any more. It was also quite warm in the auditorium which probably didn’t help the fact I was starting to lose focus.
Erin Brandenburg did have her hands full in directing this piece as I’m sure a great deal of planning was necessary to keep the pace moving. And yes, she and the actors do keep it clipping along which is important as it does help to maintain our focus.
What really impressed me the most for the evening was the work of Heather Marie Annis and Ximena Huizi. I lost count after awhile, but I got up to twenty characters (divided by 2) which means each lady played at least 10 people plus more. This is quite a feat as the responsibility lies with the actors and the director to ensure they have created believable people. And they did – some of the European accents they incorporated were passable but at times I experienced some difficulty in hearing all the dialogue. Obviously accents plus proper enunciation are of the utmost importance for sound clarity.
I was intrigued in watching how the ladies used the many props to maintain our interest to tell the story of the strike and of the effects and results. A couple of moments were adlibbed with much needed laughter if one of the plasticine figures happened to break apart in the handling.
The audience polling stopped the plot’s momentum dead in its tracks which became problematic for me near the end. A point of consideration perhaps that polling might be cut down either to one or no more than two polls.
I don’t want to spoil the conclusion, but the recounting of what happened after the six-week strike and the movement of the actors, the plasticine objects and items certainly made its point dramatically.
Final Thoughts: So, let’s return to the question that was asked in my Canadian History lecture over thirty years ago. No, I wouldn’t say that Canadian History is boring in comparison the history of the United States. Zietpunk theatre took a chance to bring to life an important moment from our history with parallels that have been made to our current economic status – decent wages, appropriate living conditions, justice and fairness in the workplace. For this reason, it is an important one to see.
‘Remembering the Winnipeg General’ continues to July 6, Wednesday to Saturday at 8 pm at The Owl’s Club, 847 Dovercourt Road. Tickets may be purchased at the door before each performance.