Red Deer’s madcap history is loaded with kooky characters.
We had furry celebrity magnet Mickey the Beaver, who gave the Dionne Quintuplets a run in the tabloids, and Rosalind the chief milk-producing jersey cow of the British Empire.
Red Deer’s first troop of eager Boys Scouts scored international headlines (and a trip to England for two Scouts) by apprehending a real-life fugitive who had plugged two bullets in the local police chief. And the city’s first conflicted mayor juggled the dual roles of running city hall while also reporting on his own performance there as publisher of the Red Deer Advocate (now much frowned upon).
With so much historic quirk to work with, one would expect the city’s official centennial play, Red Deer River Stories, written by Tree House Youth Theatre’s artistic director Matt Gould, to be lighted-hearted and funny in an off-kilter, Rowan Atkinson kind of way.
And the play that made its world premiere Thursday at the Scott Block in Red Deer does have warm and silly moments.
But it also features too many deadly serious moments in the latter half that, when it comes down to it, don’t have a lot to do with Red Deer, specifically.
And that’s when this production (if I can use a clunky local metaphor) goes off the rails of the former CP Rail bridge now converted for pedestrians.
But let’s start with the entertaining stuff, and there was plenty — especially in the homey first act.
The play begins with a group of enthusiastic youth from the 1913 high school literary society putting on a variety show to celebrate Red Deer attaining city status.
Gould makes great use of vaudeville, incorporating an imaginative hand puppet opening, depicting animals that existed before nomadic aboriginals and European settlers came to the area.
The pioneer kids deliver stirring versions of Maple Leaf Forever and a poem by Pauline Johnson. First mayor Frances Galbraith makes an appearance, both in the show and from the audience, and there’s brief talk of suffragettes, treatment of aboriginals and prohibition that show some intolerant attitudes of the day.
There’s also a musical hall segment full of corny jokes, and a thrilling re-enactment of the Scouts arresting fugitive Arthur Kelly that’s done in slapstick, Keystone Cops style.
Red Deer River Stories jumps 60 years ahead to the flower power era in the second act, with Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School students now putting on a show to celebrate Red Deer’s Jubilee in 1973.
Some of these kids are descendants of the 1913 lot, and are still carrying on petty grievances started by their grandparents.
Mickey the Beaver makes an all too brief appearance, and there’s a humourous skit featuring a flatulent Rosalind the milk cow. The students are also dealing with immigration, the Vietnam War and a crush between two boys (one was beaten and kicked out of the house by his dad).
But the play begins to slow with extended presentations on the horrors of the bird-killing insecticide DDT that are more like a long-winded Grade 10 class project than entertainment.
And there’s an over-long segment in which students pose in tableaus that re-create archival Red Deer photos. The tableaus don’t work because they are too obscure and confusing — perhaps the photographs should have been projected alongside for clarity’s sake.
The play’s third act is also a challenge. Various visions of Red Deer’s future range from having Rosalind the cow fly to the moon to stop the attack of cheese-eating mice, to a Kafka-esque scene in which students are imprisoned in a “citizen restocking complex” for crimes against consumerism. It ends with an interesting movement piece with snatches of verse that brings to mind an uplifting version of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men.
One can’t fault Gould for his ambition, but this is daunting stuff for audience members who are only expecting a few laughs and some history lite.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, with two intermissions, the play is overly long. But that said, imaginative moments Gould creates in Red Deer River Stories will likely stick with theatregoers long after the performance is over.
And the talented young actors did a fantastic job of bringing his vision to the stage. Singing, dancing, acting — they performed it all with panache, so kudos to the cast: Aiden Olley, Aiden Sullivan, Alandra Powers, Alex Wozny, Allison Weninger, Ben Berg, Cameron Chapman, Chelsey Fitsimons, Colton Mayne, Duncan Macaulay, Karley Bodnarchuk, Sean Traverse, Shae Hayes, Sydney Malyon, and Warren Stephens.
And congratulations to Tree House Youth Theatre on its 25th anniversary. The quality of its young actors and the high reach of Tree House productions says it all.
The show continues to June 8.