2014 Edmonton Fringe Festival Review: Bible Bill: The Gospel Musical

Alberta's seventh Premier, William "Bible Bill" Aberhart, has for the second time in as many years been the subject of a play at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. I now very much regret not writing up Neverman from last year: I saw it on the last day of the festival and, let's be frank here, after 11 days of Fringing I was done with my keyboard (and my liver) and wanted to move onto other topics: like Transformers: Legends. So I can't compare this year's Aberhart play to last year's very directly except to state something of the obvious: this play actually contains Bible Bill.

The setting is the 1940 broadcast of the weekly show by the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute (since we're in Edmonton, the Edmonton Prophetic Bible Institute is called into service), done on a rare "remote broadcast" in the church (in reality, broadcast from The Strand Theatre...the palatial main studios of CJCA's crystal palace weren't even a flutter in Bill Matheson's mind), and right after Aberhart's second term victory. The Premier himself is a little late due to car troubles, and we start off with Ernest Manning (played probably as decently as possible as a woman could here: we all have heard Ernest speak -- he sounds a lot like Preston, with perhaps a little more gravitas -- and Laura Raboud does it decently though with a lot more speed and vibrancy than the real Ernest was known for) giving a bit of war news (Churchill replaces Chamberlain, etc) and advising that with the recent second term SoCred victory and the 25 year anniversary of the Prophetic Bible Institute broadcasts, they would be doing a tribute to Aberhart himself. As he continues to be delayed we get a chance to meet our ancillary characters. Ugh.

Writing authentic period dialogue can be tough, and perhaps even more tough is getting millennials to deliver the lines with the proper tone and nuance. Last year's Neverman suffered from this tendency quite a bit, mostly due to the younger age of the actors and a bit of weak writing. In this work, the main victims are the characters of Fred Lymburn (Aaron Casselman) and Ruth Duncan (Vanessa Wilson) who always seem to have too much modern flair in their words and delivery. Part of this may be because they are the two characters most often used to deliver information in modern terms to the audience (how much a prosperity certificate is worth on eBay, for example), though they really seemed out of place on the stage with two giants of Albertan history and perhaps that was ultimately their disability.

When Aberhart (Kevin Mott) himself arrives, we are finally treated to some of the energy and spectacle that infected the province from end to end so powerfully in 1934: Mott delivers his lines with the warm but firmly convicted speech that Aberhart was known for (and tragically, so little of it remains: as the flip side to Raboud's Manning the big difference in speech here is that Mott delivers with much more rumbling base than Aberhart himself). He comes up to the stage to hear a quick recap of his life, including a discussion of his mathematics teaching career in Ontario. We also get an "accidental" clip of some of his more vicious detractors, former Premier Brownlee, talking about the Aberhart SoCreds being ignorant in economics.

What comes next is a variety of sermons, skits, and music that tries to capture the spirit of the early broadcasts (before the "Back to the Bible" form of Ernest Manning, which was certainly less theatrical suiting the personality of the two men) though a little disjointed to serve as a narrative framework. When the broadcast went offline a couple of times and more traditional theatre was allowed to take the stage as it were the play gained back some of its storytelling: including a sequence where popping balloons were used to represent failed attempts at legislating in the SoCred reforms. The play also gets physical when Lymburn is shown to be a sympathizer to the backbench revolt of '37 and Aberhart comes face to face with somebody who his party let down: again hinting at a theme Neverman concentrated heavily on: the human toll caused when true believers acted on their faith, taking out extra mortgages and buying extra properties in the hope that the dividends will come. There was a bit of an oddity when Lymburn was furious at Aberhart for the committee of experts brought in to administer social credit reforms independent of caucus...in reality that committee was the brainchild of those who revolted against Aberhart (and, indeed, most of their legislation was struck down by various courts and privy councils too, so as a criticism of Aberhart it didn't quite cut the mustard).

The Aberhart era was certainly a strange one: the social credit ideas of wage and price controls, high taxes to banks, and prosperity cheques sound today more like the NDP platform, and as the play hinted Aberhart was attacked (with equally good reason as happens to the NDP today) for being ignorant of finance and economics. The play briefly linked the Ralph Klein tax rebates with social credit dividends though of course that isn't accurate much either: Klein's one-time tax cuts weren't a result of any "social prosperity" but rather were the result of extra money in the provincial coffers and certainly would have been an alien problem (if not a wholly alien solution) to Bible Bill. Oddly, no mention of Ernest's dividends of 1957 are brought up.

It's probably appropriate that a play recapping Aberhart's broadcasting and political career is high on the sermons and low on the politics: they actually fit quite well with Bible Bill's reign. Though Manning comes across here (and indeed, came across in speeches later in life) as a generic loyal lieutenant destined to continue his master's schemes while in his footsteps the stark reality is that Manning turned out to be the transformative Premier that Aberhart wanted to be: under Manning the Christian foundation of Social Credit was tempered with solid conservatism and more traditional practices...and in a way that Manning slowly was able to turn Social Credit from a laughably impossible economic system into instead a populist movement that his son would later emulate so successfully on a broader scale. Manning's style of SoCred populism spurned the similar shift in BC politics that left the SoCreds there in power until '91 (though, oddly, Manning's own pick to run the BC Socreds was Hansell, who was Manning-style replaced by Bennett who turned social credit away from the Douglas-Aberhart philosophy). Manning was rewarded with a quarter century in office, a Senate posting that still causes some Albertans to bristle with anger when they are reminded that he accepted it (especially in the Preston Triple-E days, it was a good idea to leave out the topic of his dad's patronage post), and the father of modern Alberta. By the time he left office he was the first Premier of Alberta to be discussing the oilsands: the man who inherited a disjointed and weakened Social Credit party in a province decimated by poverty and war ended up living to see his son lead Reform to it's explosive 1993 victories. Politically this play is almost the prequel to the Ernest Manning story, oddly enough. Though Aberhart dominates the performances (Raboud's biggest chance to shine is in fact having Ernest playing the part of a martian invader in one of the radio sketches performed during the program: the most involved Ernest gets to be is playing somebody else), the spirit of the future Manning seems to loom just behind those glasses.

By eschewing the narrative structure to form a simulation of Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute broadcast, Bible Bill: The Musical does a great job of taking us back to experience the feeling of listening to Aberhart defending his faith and his politics on the radio. Despite the play's name, the musical number is limited to one act at the beginning, along with a few hymnals (and not entirely hymnal, to Ernest and William's consternation as Ruth Duncan -- the "Duncan Sister", one of the play's weaker gags that is mercifully dropped -- sings a song only nominally about Christianity while gyrating her hips against the microphone...similar to Carman's Faith + 1 songs). Some of the more traditional hymns are included in the playbook so the audience can sing along, another nice touch that brings that feeling of being there watching Aberhart in his natural element: the pulpit.

Final word: A must-see for political buffs, this "musical" recreates the feeling of Willaim "Bible Bill" Aberhart even if it doesn't always function as a traditional narrative.

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)