My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage


Firebrand: When history burns

by Drew Rowsome
Photos by John Gundy

As we now know, thanks to the antics and scandals of our civic and federal representatives, Canadian politics can be fascinating and melodramatically theatrical. And our history is just as combustible. When Single Thread Theatre Company adds the psycho-sexual twist of pyrophilia to the mix in their production of Firebrand: The Mackenzie House Story, the results are a titillating tease of behind the scenes in the creation of our fine nation.

Before the show begins, the audience mingles in the lobby of the Mackenzie House museum, chatting, gossiping and occasionally perusing the exhibits and information on display. The program is a graphic novel by Frank Fiorentino that outlines, quite entertainingly, the basic historical background and emotional tensions required to follow the action to follow. But not to worry, Firebrand itself manages to cram a lot of exposition and historical context into the dialogue without ever becoming dry or preachy - playwright Alex Dault's script may stumble occasionally with all the information that has to be crammed in, but it is  very cleverly constructed. 

A woman in a flowing white dress and constricting corset, drifts into the crowd, an apparition who eventually interacts and beckons us through an imposing locked door into the Mackenzie House proper. The 20 or so audience members, that is all there is room for, crowd into the living room and Firebrand begins. Very quickly we are brought up to speed on the central dilemmas and conflicts and then the apparition - who we now know is Barbara Mackenzie played with a wide-eyed, seething with sexual repression, eeriness by Clara Pasieka - lures us to the kitchen in the basement. 

In true Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey fashion, the kitchen is the heart of the home and also where secrets are revealed and sexuality explored. The stylistic change is a bit abrupt - and occasionally plagued with phrases that ring a little too modern - but the audience is hooked and become totally absorbed. Being a site-specific play - though it would, with a few tweaks, work well on a proscenium stage - we are so close to the action, so intimately involved, that identification and emotional involvement is a given. The graphic, for 1837, sexual and violent interactions happen mere inches from our eyes giving a delightfully disturbing and arousing complicity.

The finale, in a dark bedroom under the rafters, is suitably Gothic. And when the metaphors and symbols are all neatly tied together, it is emotionally satisfying. We are in these peoples' home and have come to care for them - the sense of being actually transported back in time is quite extraordinary. Even the sound of cars passing by is excused and the visual of today, seen through the kitchen window, fades into the background as the characters take advantage of the entire house and grounds to make some startling and highly effective entrances.

Greg Campbell as William Lyon Mackenzie, troubled patriarch and failed revolutionary, and Michael Rawley as his political sparring partner James Lesslie, have rich theatrical voices and presences that are riveting in such close quarters. The women, suitably for the era, are quieter but burn with an intense sense of strength. Jakob Ehman tackles, as he did in Donors, multiple roles that he clearly defines despite being quite possibly a character(s) conjured up by sexual desire and plot contrivances. Once again he radiates sexuality, despite the hindrance of pork chop sideburns, and when he brushed against me - I had foolishly parked myself in a doorway so had intimate interactions with several of the cast members - in search of fuel for Barbara Mackenzie's fire fetish, I felt the sparks.

As a drama, borderline melodrama, Firebrand is a compulsive watch; as a political critique and reminder that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, Firebrand is gripping. While we all laughed when parallels to current crises were drawn, pointedly but subtly and without editorializing, the laughter was rueful and thought-provoking. 

It is a shame that the environment allows for so few theatre-goers: the run is almost sold out but there is hope for additional performances. The frisson of excitement, of being a voyeur, of observing extremely intimate moments, is so strong that it almost over-rode the foreboding terror of being in an enclosed space, lit mainly by candles (there are open flames everywhere), with a character who is sexually aroused - and actively in search of release - by setting herself, and others, on fire.

Firebrand: The Mackenzie House Story continues until Sat, Feb 22 at Mackenzie House, 82 Bond St.