Stage Door Review
A Short History of Niagara
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
by Alexandra Montagnese & Mike Petersen, directed by Tim Carroll
Shaw Festival, The BMO Stage, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 29-August 15, 2021
“Skipping a stone across history”
The most unusual show at the Shaw Festival this year is one with the least fanfare. This is A Short History of Niagara by by Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Petersen directed by Shaw Festival Artistic Director Tim Carroll. The show takes on the task of compressing 12,000 years of the history of the Niagara region into a 30-minute puppet play without dialogue. It may sound like an impossible proposition but the result is thoroughly delightful. It should please both young and old, both newcomers to the area and those who have always lived there.
The play is performed on the low platform in front of the BMO Stage where, until July 31, Charley’s Aunt was performed. Contrary to the seating plan for Charley’s Aunt where only one fourth of the audience faced directly into the stage, for Niagara the seats have been placed on the grass close to the lower platform to give audience members a good view of the smaller actors.
The playing area has been set up with what in Japanese bunraku puppetry would be called two tesuri (or “railings”). These railings are really most like counter-tops where the action happens. Montagnese and Petersen have arranged to have the second tesuri raised higher that the first both so the audience can see the action set there better and to suggest a location farther away from the first tesuri.
Comparisons to bunraku are not totally out of line since, as in bunraku, Montagnese and Petersen as the puppet manipulators are fully visible to the audience although, unlike their bunraku equivalents, Montagnese and Petersen are clad all in white rather than all in black.
The most complex puppets that the two use are also similar to those in bunraku with one puppeteer manipulating the head and the other the rest of the body. What sets the style of Montagnese and Petersen apart from bunraku, however, is that the two use a wide range of all type of puppets from those requiring two to manipulate to movable head puppets needing only one puppeteer to simple wooden dolls to glove puppets.
In preparing the content of Niagara Montagnese and Petersen were aided by Tim Johnson, an Indigenous historian and a former director at the Smithsonian Institution. He supplied them with the legend that begins the show. On the front tesuri we see a young indigenous woman with signs of worry about her face set off in a canoe (the people and objects are beautifully constructed). She sails down the river of the front tesuri only show up a size smaller on the back tesuri. This is an ancient technique in bunraku to show a character has moved into the distance. Suddenly a huge tower at least two feet high covered with shimmering fabric rises up. At its foot is a lacy fabric that Montagnese and Petersen shake. We know at once that this is Niagara Falls. The Indigenous woman paddled along the top and finally plunges over. Yet hands (of a puppeteer) reach out and save her and bring her to join a group of Indigenous people assembled behind the Falls.
What is this? Well, if the Shaw Festival were so helpful as to provide a programme, we would know that this is the story of the Maid of the Mist, which most of us thought was simply the name of a sightseeing boat. In Haudenosaunee myth a young widow feels such grief that she wishes to commit suicide. As she approaches the brink of the Falls she prays to Heno, the God of Thunder, who inhabits the water below, that her death may be swift and that she will have the courage to go through with it. Heno answers her prayers by catching her has she falls and she marries Heno younger son.
The story is enacted before Montagnese and Petersen unveil a banner proclaiming the title of the show. Soon we see an Indigenous woman in the front tesuri looking in bewilderment at what is occurring behind her. At a fort set up on the back tesuri small wooden dolls in British livery are fighting small wooden dolls in fleur-de-lis livery. A shoving battle ensues and soon the British push the French off the fort. No sooner does this happen than the Indigenous women notices yet another battle. This time small wooden dolls clad in stars and stripes try to surprise the British in their fort.
As it happens a White colonial woman overhears two American soldiers speaking and expresses shock as what she hears. She sets out at night on a tiring walk and reaches a British camp to tell her tale. This is, of course, none other than Laura Secord, but strangely in this production she is missing her cow. Again, if the show had a programme, someone could have pointed out that Laura’s cow was an invention in in the 1860s of the historian William Foster Collins. As we see in Niagara, Laura does not find the British camp on her own but asks an Indigenous man (the Mohawks were then allied with the British) to guide her to the British.
What follows is one imaginative scene after another of the history of Niagara from 1812 to the present. It is very difficult to single out highlights since the level of invention in the design of the puppets, of the sets and of the action is of such a high level of excellence. The audience often laughs in delight simply in recognizing the events depicted so cleverly on stage.
We see the building of Niagara-on-the-Lake, with its Court House and its 1869 Apothecary. We see the the pursuit of a Black man from the United States who finds refuge and legal protection from his pursuers in Canada. We see the burning down of Niagara-on-the-Lake (then called Newark) by the Americans in 1813 and later the town’s rebuilding including the Prince of Wales Hotel in 1864.
Niagara Falls as daredevils’ proving ground is depicted humorously through several unsuccessful attempts of people in barrels going over the Falls until in 1901 Annie Taylor made the first successful journey. Also quite amusing is Montagnese’s depiction using a glove puppet of Frenchman Charles Blondin crossing the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope in 1859.
Drawing groans from the audience is the commercialization of the Falls with the rise of casinos and the Skylon. The development of the wine industry, the increase of bus tours to Niagara-on-the-Lake and the founding of the Shaw Festival in 1973 (depicted incorrectly at the Royal George Theatre) all find their place in this image-packed show.
Montagnese told Evan Saunders of Niagara Now that the show was like “skipping a stone across history”. That is an apt metaphor for the joy the show engenders but it downplays the enormous amount of planning and skill that have gone into making the skipping of this stone appear so effortless.
A Short History of Niagara is a show that every visitor to the area should see both for its value as entertainment and history. Ideally, the audience would see the show without a programme just so that it would focus on the art of the puppeteers’ presentation and get caught up in the sweep of events, both sublime and ridiculous, that this region has seen. After the performance is when a programme would be ideal just to supply the information that not everyone will know. This might also prevent parents from thinking they need to narrate the show to their children, thus ruining the point of the show’s wordless presentation.
Since one of the sponsors for Niagara is Parks Canada, one hopes that the show will become a permanent offering in area. It is so rich in imagination people will be eager to see it multiple times.
For ages 4+.
Photos: Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Petersen with the Maid of the Mist; Mike Petersen and Alexandra Montagnese with British officer, Mohawk guide and Laura Secord. © 2021 Lauren Garbutt.
For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.