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So much theatre: Blood on the Moon

By Andrew Snowdon on January 22, 2012

Photo courtesy of Geekgirly on Flickr.

Take your familiar theatre review column, sprinkle in some academic insights and a good dose of industry knowledge, and you’ve got So Much Theatre: a semi-regular feature by Apartment613?s Andrew Snowdon. Follow Andrew on twitter: he’s @snobiwan.

People still talk about Blood on the Moon nearly thirteen years after its inaugural run as a Fringe show (and its subsequent three summers at the National Arts Centre, stint in Ireland, and TV movie). Once you’ve seen it live, as this remount at the Great Canadian Theatre Company permits us to do, you understand exactly why.
In the spring of 1868, the nascent Dominion of Canada was rocked by a brutal murder: the apparent assassination of prominent politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee.  James Patrick Whelan, a fellow Irishman from Montréal, was quickly tried, convicted, and publicly hanged—the last public execution in Canada, in fact—for the crime.  That’s all most people know of the story, if indeed they know anything at all (I imagine there’s a segment of the population that is only aware of D’Arcy McGee insofar as there is a local chain of Irish-style pubs that bear his name.).
In Blood on the Moon, Pierre Brault offers a different, much deeper, examination of the circumstances surrounding the only federal political assassination in Canada’s past.  Taking on the persona of Whelan himself, Brault not only presents the events of the trial but delves into Whelan’s own experiences and emotions.  Although Whelan maintains his own innocence to the bitter end, by telling the story from his perspective Brault manages to highlight the uncertainty surrounding his guilt.
For someone with an interest in Canadian history, it would be fascinating enough to hear this told as a story.  This is, however, far from a dry historical account.  What makes Blood on the Moon mesmerizing for the average audience member is Pierre Brault’s clever and realistic characterization; he can flip from character to character as easy as one turns the pages of a book.  At the same time, his obviously extensive research and immersion in the material have permitted him to inhabit Whelan completely, bringing him to life in a deeply sympathetic manner—not just as a wrongly-accused man but as a human being experiencing separation from his wife, the isolation of imprisonment, and the stark alienation of becoming a scapegoat with the public clamoring for his blood.
The beauty and broad appeal of Blood on the Moon is that, although it takes place in specific places familiar to many Ottawans, it does not depend on this familiarity for its effect.  Even if one has no prior knowledge of the geography of the city and the places described, Brault fleshes them out with enough detail that they become very real.  He paints a picture of mid-nineteenth-century Ottawa, a place very different from the one we know today, its boarding houses and pistol-toting inhabitants lending it somewhat of a Wild West flavour.  As foreign and repugnant as it is to us to conceive of a Prime Minister who would subvert justice to serve political ends, Sir John A. Macdonald seemed to have a penchant for disposing of potential enemies at the end of a rope.
Blood on the Moon‘s genesis as a Fringe production (the story of which Pierre Brault tells in the Ottawa Fringe Festival’s 15th anniversary retrospective OFF the Record) is evident in its stark simplicity.  The only thing on stage throughout the piece is a single wooden chair.  Changes in scenery are accomplished entirely by simple and effective lighting.  As much as director John Koensgen’s valuable influence is keenly visible in the dramatization of the story, Martin Conboy’s scenography is accented by Marc Desormeaux’s precise and authentic sound design.  As much as Brault alone is able to fill the stage and command the attention of the audience, all these factors work together to bring the story and its setting into sharp relief.
Not only is this a perfect outing for high school history and law classes, it is proof that we have a rich historical heritage that is both inspiring and entertaining. When it comes to celebrating our history as a country in theatre and film, as Canadians we have barely begun to tap the rich opportunities for cultural creation available to those with an aptitude for research.  Compared to the United States, which has had enough Presidential assassination attempts alone to fill out a full-length musical revue (Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins), our defining moments as a country require more work to unearth, but the interesting stories are there if one looks.  To make a popular work of art about Canadian history, it is hardly necessary (and often ineffective) to dither about our exploits as Great Britain’s extra troops in muddy European fields; Blood on the Moon shows that we have more than enough to work with here in our own front yard.
Signed copies of the text of Blood on the Moon, as well as DVDs of the Gemini Award–winning Bravo! production, are on sale at the Great Canadian Theatre Company for the duration of the run. Blood on the Moon is at the Great Canadian Theatre Company until February 5, 2012.