David Tysdale’s play, Ghosts of 1812, gets its world premiere production this season by Dundas Little Theatre at the Garstin Centre for the Arts, directed by Brian Morton, and co–produced by himself and Rose Pye. I looked but couldn’t find a credit for set design and will assume the credit goes to Morton. It’s a stunning sight to see on entering the Garstin Centre space. The stage is lifted on a series of stone–gray risers, the first forming a large downstage area before the ascent of a grand set of perhaps three steps, the last becoming a raised platform framed left and right by wide white cloth leg curtains rising high into the lighting grid above. The effect is majestic and suggests something quite epic is going to happen. Up right on the platform is a tall plinth style monument also in stone–gray, while up left a small cannon mounted on wheels offers a mute threat. The plinth is a memorial with dates, I believe, and a caution that it remembers someone “Known Only to God”… That we are in a cemetery is reinforced by a few scattered tombstones downstage, and is identified by a projection upstage on a large screen, a sensitive and lovely sky at dusk, with the legend “Lundy’s Lane Cemetary, Niagara Falls, Ontario”.
The misspelling notwithstanding, this handsome setting offers a solemn tribute to the history of the War of 1812–14 which is the very subject of Tysdale’s play. What follows this prestigious beginning seems to me to be struggle between an essentially intimate story trying to meet the expectations of its epical setting.
Tysdale concept for the story is delightfully fresh. We begin on a chilly autumn evening in our own time, dusk falling, but dead men calling. As it’s the anniversary of events in their community some 200 years earlier, the locals are setting out on an historical tour of their famous cemetery hoping to preserve interest in events of 1813. Teen–age Kevin and his mother, Nancy, are looking for the start of the activity. The writing is accurately contemporary. Kevin (a very believable Gavin Bailey) makes little effort to conceal his scant tolerance for the whole thing. He’s all iPhone equipped, his text messages with friends flashed up on the overhead screen. Awfully funny. Mom, determined and undeterred (a spot–on interpretation by Margot Olivieri), wheedles and quips to keep him focused on “history”. Tour leader Margaret Dempsey, nicely costumed and with lantern and printed script to lead her (played with high confidence by Tamara Kamermans) gets things going. Kevin, distracted by his text messaging, gets left behind, and in the ensuing stillness, the first ghost of 1812, a soldier, appears, and we begin writer Tysdale’s ultimately touching revelation of how intimate and personal was the toll that dirty little war took. Robert K. Brown carries the character of the unknown soldier with diffident long–suffering. His costume hangs on him as ill–fitting to him as he is ill–fitted to the dreadful indignities of war. He moves in and around the modern Kevin, amused and confused, until the playwright creates for him a strange and unexpected arrival at justification. Brown has the role under control and it’s a while before we understand he’s no hero nor are the circumstances of his sacrifice heroic. The play exposes the foolishness of military posturing in bursts of sound and colour and some very good acting. Doug Massey and the inimitable Chris Cracknell are marvelous, Mike Wierenga and Michael Hannigan in brilliant costumes to match their shining moments as the historic icons they portray. Tysdale’s women are confidently handled by Rebecca Lamarche’s fragile “Emma”, Monica Knott in her effective stage debut, and in a gender–bender triumph as males, Meagan Byrne is easily the best female performance of the evening.
David Tysdale has written an ironic story of foolishness and foolhardiness. The magnificent temple–like setting achieves no heroism, but it does suggest that satire is the theme and if not intended, can certainly be implied. I wonder if in a future production the innate cynicism of the tour guide reading from the script (a necessary solution to a casting crisis) might be left in, for starters, and let’s see how hapless we all look trying to make more of ourselves than the War of 1812–14 should expect. That lovely sad ending so gracefully achieved will be even more effective. V
GHOSTS OF 1812
Oct. 31, Nov. 1, 2, 7, 8, 9.
Dundas Little Theatre
Garstin Centre for the Arts
37 Market Street South, Dundas