Edmonton 2014 Fringe Review: The War of 1812

In 2012, leftists were outraged at Stephen Harper for his "militaristic, patriarchal, inaccurate, blah blah blah" promotion of the War of 1812. Was this part of a longstanding objection to the war we fought against the Americans? Or was it just anti-Harper hate trying to manifest itself in a new form, and deciding to oppose the promotion of the War of 1812 entirely because Harper was the one promoting it? You'll notice there's only one Rabble.ca article link in that last sentence, not two...

And one of the key things I pointed out was that far-left comedy troupe Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie didn't think it unrealistic to promote the War of 1812 when they wrote a song about it. Nor, indeed, when Trolls member Wes Borg wrote a play about it years ago. That play has returned to the stage this year as the last surviving Troll brings his work home...with the help of a couple other actors and his poor beleaguered daughter.

We kick off with, of all things, the voice of the late Pierre Burton, who delivered his lines by phone 18 years ago and shames us into wanting to watch this historically inaccurate play instead of his two War of 1812 books, and several other of his key tomes on the topic of Canadian History (which, Rabble take note, he unequivocally believed was a category the war fell under). And with that, we start with young David angrily talking about how lame Canada is by pointing out all of the American-named things that he buys and lives under. Suddenly, springing from "very cheap confetti" appears Pierre Burton himself (well, in this case unlike the previous, not himself but instead played by an actor...which one won't matter, as the different cast members all take a turn playing both David and Burton) to convince him that Canada isn't in fact "lame" and that we "did kick some asses" even before Vimy Ridge.

With that, we break into a bit of history through the use of a time travelling canoe (it's probably best just to shrug about this plot device, and move on): to the actual Senate testimony calling for a declaration of war, and the opening salvo where General Hull invaded southern Ontario but never pressed on to reach any strategic military targets. As the play continues, we'll experience the invasion of Detroit where British/Canadian General Isaac Brock didn't have to fire a single shot, an Indian raid on Hull's men (in real life, the Indians were much more bloodthirsty than this play led on, slaughtering American troops even after surrenders and cease-fires were signed: one of the consequences of this of course was the decision to use force rather than treaties in the northwest, since a viciously violent childlike race can ignore the latter but not the former. We're seeing the same situation play out in Gaza). The raid scene is where we first get to see some of the prop-based comedy that this play will delight us all with: the Indians are stick puppets that the actors playing American soldiers hold and use to simulate their own deaths. It would have worked too, if all the actors had fallen on the little tape X's carefully laid out on the floor of these productions.

By the time Brock is leading the charge on the American frontier, the audience participation meter is in full swing: a cannon is used to launch ping pong balls into the audience and once Brock's forces start losing the counter-attack, the cast has ran into the crowd to give us all ping-pong balls the throw back at the Canadian forces before us on stage. Great fun, and some of the many little touches this play does to help draw the audience in and make it a good time (since, as Pierre Burton warned us, it's not going to be very accurate). One of the first casualties is Henry Procter, the Canadian General who was portrayed as a fudge packer throughout the play ("I didn't even sound like this! I was macho!" protested Borg-as-Procter as his order to abandon Tecumseh's Indians and retreat was given), though Tecumseh himself was made out to be a fair bit less savage than history records. Still, Detroit was in Canadian hands and "at the end of the first period the score was CANADA 1, UNITED STATES 0". (Again, actual history being some separate nebulous thing operating far outside the reality of this play)

The play progresses though as the Americans start their counter-attack: General Hampton who tried to conquer Montreal is portrayed as doing kung-fu in a speedo straight out of Die Hard 2. Pierre Burton and Peter Mansbridge fight with oars in a time-canoe battle that Wes Borg turns into a pretty weak celebrity joke, and an audience member gets to play Napolean...for one line. [that seems pretty....short....okay I feel dirty now. -ed]. Finally the play wraps up with the burning of the White House (I briefly thought for sure they were going to literally set fire to the prop, after all the stuff they'd already done) by cleverly turning a cardboard cutout into a flaming pyre, and of course Wes Borg's character learning about the War of 1812 (as Pierre Burton goes off to "teach a young girl in Saskatchewan the importance of the development of the railway system") by singing his famous song on the topic.

The War of 1812 featured a few other running gags too: Borg's daughter was the on-stage sound and prop editor, and the actors enjoyed making her clean up the arrows and ping-pong balls and even the confetti. In turn, she enjoyed spraying way more water on the performers during the naval battles scenes than was necessarily called for. Paul Oppers is apparently in his first Fringe play, which he used many times to justify some of his diva-ish actions. Finally, Kelly Hudson really really really wants to sing but is almost never given the chance to: nor does she get the chance, when Laura Secord is introduced in what even this play's Pierre Burton calls the "Historically Inaccurate Musical Number", to even play the only female character actually in the play. All of these are lovingly played off of. Also played off of, to the extent I think a lot of it was just shady work by the technical crew, was mistakes in the lighting cues. After a while these got old...though I'm sure that Borg and Morgan Cranny were just as frustrated by this as we the audience were. They were the two veteran performers, though perhaps not surprisingly were the weaker actual actors in the work. We've seen these men on-stage before, and their tounge-in-cheek performances in this play work much better than their attempt to re-do Jeff Who Lives At Home.

Final line: Though not big on historical accuracy or fine method acting, this is an expertly pulled off Fringe performance with laughter and frivolity and maybe even a tiny bit of education. Plus, we'll be able to hold this over the head of Harper-Derangement-Syndrome leftists for years.

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