Still soaring after all these years: Ruminations on war & heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War

Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Still flying high 40 years after its creation, the award-winning Billy Bishop Goes to War returns to the Young Centre. Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson, and directed by Ted Dykstra, Soulpepper brings Billy Bishop back to the stage in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Pulling dusty sheets from the piano, an easy chair, and a series of foot lockers and trunks, Bishop (Peterson) appears in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers. Despite the sense that we are here with him out of time and space, it’s as if we’ve woken him from a snooze. The foot lockers are a treasure trove of memorabilia and props for his story, as he dusts off memories, producing props and gear; and the framed photographs he produces along the way serve as poignant snapshots of moments and lives lived.

Through anecdotes, songs, poetry and letters to Bishop’s sweetheart Margaret back home, Peterson and Gray weave a tale of a life that was part luck, part pluck and all present. Going from the worst student at the Royal Military College (RMC)—known as a liar, a cheat and general executer of shenanigans—to an officer in the cavalry, Bishop always had an eye out for opportunity and adventure. Growing tired of being stuck in the mud or covered in sand, he looked for a way out of the cavalry. In his case, up and out. Finding his way into the Royal Flying Corps, he was taken on as an observer—a good job for him, as he was also known for his hawk eye and being a good shot—later becoming a pilot with the assistance of Lady St. Helier, who he met and befriended while recuperating in a London hospital (his tendency toward being accident prone bringing him good luck on several occasions).

As a pilot, he found a particular sense of drive and ambition, developing a friendly rivalry with fellow pilot Captain Albert Ball, and becoming famous for flying solo missions, including an attack on a German aerodrome; endeavours that earned medals, including the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross. Realizing the colonies were more apt to respond to a living hero than a dead one, his British superiors gave him a new assignment, to return home as a hero and public figure, boosting morale in Canada.

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Eric Peterson & John MacLachlan Gray—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Gray (on stage as the Piano Player) and Peterson are a perfect match for this journey of an unlikely hero. In addition to acting as accompanist and singer, his gentle, raspy vocals performing catchy, often moving songs, Gray takes on the roles of army buddy and audience for Bishop, as well as a number of brief moments as various other characters as needed. And Peterson juggles a number of characters in addition to Bishop, including particularly fun turns as a befuddled British officer, a drunken Scot, the imperious and proper Lady St. Helier, and the slinky chanteuse Hélène.

Foot lockers, a stand-up ash tray and a miniature of Bishop’s famous plane, as well as shadow play and projections on the upstage scrim, are used to great effect to re-enact observer flights, the first solo flight and dog fights. Peterson’s playful scallywag adventurer performance as Bishop is balanced by moments of profound poignancy: his recitation of a poem to Albert Ball, and memories of the dead and dying, in the trenches or in the sky. And when Bishop returns to us in the present, it’s like we’re spending time with a grandfather, a beloved rascal regaling us with tall tales of the war, at times appearing lost in thought or memory. For better or worse, these things happened—and they shaped a life and a career.

With big shouts to the design team—Camellia Koo (set and costumes), Steve Lucas (lighting) and director Ted Dykstra (sound)—for their work on bringing this adventure in storytelling to life.

Still soaring after all these years. Playful, irreverent and thoughtful ruminations on the nature of war and heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Billy Bishop Goes to War continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 trailer:

 

Dreams, desires & the drive for freedom in thoughtful & farcical Up the Garden Path

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Virgilia Griffith, Sochi Fried & Marcel Stewart – photo by Lyon Smith

Obsidian Theatre opened its production of Lisa Codrington’s Up the Garden Path, directed by Philip Aikin, at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) last week – and I caught the show last night, which also happened to be Barbados Night, and the house was packed with an enthusiastic and appreciative, mostly Bajan, audience.

Set in the late 1960s, the play opens in Barbados. When Rosa (Virgilia Griffith) comes to Alma (Arlene Duncan) needing a place to stay, willing to work for her room and board, she is first met with disdain – for Rosa is the daughter of Alma’s late husband and her mother, the town seamstress, infamous for taking other women’s husbands to her bed. But Rosa has skills with a sewing needle and Alma’s son Edmund (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) needs to look his best for an upcoming job interview to be a fruit picker in Canada – and Alma intends for him to wear his father’s suit, which is way too big for him. Alma’s younger sister Amelia (Raven Dauda) is pragmatic about the situation, and possibly even sympathetic to Rosa’s plight, and Rosa finds a reluctant home. When Edmund injures his ankle the day before he’s to leave for the job, and needing the income it would provide, Alma and Amelia disguise Rosa as a man, in the suit she altered for Edmund, and send her in his place. And that’s where the real adventure begins for Rosa – in a vineyard in the Niagara region, where instead of being a fruit picker, farmer Isaac (Alex McCooeye) tasks her with scaring off the large flocks of starlings that plague his grapes. It is there that she is also enlisted as a scene partner by Isaac’s aspiring actress younger sister Laura (Sochi Fried) and – even stranger – is called upon by the ghost of an American soldier (Marcel Stewart) to help him leave this earthly plain.

The storytelling uses elements of farce (so aptly complemented by the set design, with its doors, shutters, window frames and corrugated tin), as well as Shakespeare (young woman forced by circumstance to be disguised as a man) and Shaw (Laura’s prize role is Joan of Arc), fairy tale and ghost story – the once upon a time journey is strong here. The play features some great moments of comedy, and a farcical edge that cuts through to some thought-provoking truths. As Rosa goes from outsider, to fish out of water, to self-discovery, this is also a hero’s journey of discovery and transformation.

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Arlene Duncan, Ronnie Rowe Jr. & Raven Dauda – photo by Lyon Smith

Up the Garden Path’s ensemble is outstanding. As the proud family matriarch Alma, Duncan is a sharp-tongued, formidable force to be reckoned with; a woman who’ll suffer no foolishness, she longs for her son to grow up and become a breadwinner for the family. Dauda’s Amelia is the perfect foil to Alma; resourceful and irreverent, she easily trades humourous barbs with her sister as she helps build her nephew into a man – all the while dreaming of a reunion with her sweetheart in England. As Edmund, Rowe Jr. brings a strong sense of a child-like and wide-eyed man boy; a young man with a serious sweet tooth who must take a job in Canada to help support his family, when all he wants to do is open up a sweet shop. Griffith brings a quiet, but potent, unassuming dignity to Rosa; a young woman reviled for her parentage, but tolerated for her tailoring skills. Buffeted here and there by circumstance and those who have power over her life, Rosa has an inner strength that may even surprise herself. And she’s by far the most sane one of the lot.

Stewart gives a powerful, multilayered performance as the ghost soldier Marcel; a bright, loyal and good-humoured man who struggles with horrific memories of war and racial violence. He longs to leave this earth as much as Rosa wanted to leave the judgement and exclusion she faced back home. McCooeye’s Isaac is comical combination of authoritarian know-it-all and ridiculous, scared little bully; a history nerd and proud 1812 redcoat re-enactor (he’s in uniform throughout), his vulnerability is exposed when he needs to step in as tour guide at Fort George, and his mind set on battling the challenges at the family vineyard. As his drama queen sister Laura, Fried gives an energetic and charismatic performance of youthful exuberance, self-absorption and passion; dying to play Shaw’s Joan of Arc, she’s convinced the role will be her ticket to the big time.

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Virgilia Griffith & Alex McCooeye – photo by Lyon Smith

With shouts to the design team: set/costume designer Anna Treusch, lighting designer Steve Lucas, sound designer Verne Good and production designer Cameron Davis for bringing the vision of these very different environments to life in one space: Rosa’s Barbados town, and the Niagara region farm and vineyard.

Dreams, desires and the drive for freedom in thoughtful and farcical Up the Garden Path.

You should go see this. Up the Garden Path continues in the TPM Mainspace until Apr 10. For advance tickets, call 416-504-7529 or order online.