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Photo: Terry Manzo

Theatre Review: The Pigeon King at the NAC—until 05.05.19

By Jennifer Cavanagh on April 28, 2019





An astonishing true story, The Pigeon King brings to the stage the Canadian Ponzi scheme that bankrupted thousands of farmers in rural Ontario and beyond. To create this documentary-cum-musical piece, the Blyth Festival company dug deep; investigating the story, locating trial recordings and conducting interviews with the many players involved with Pigeon King International (PKI) company founded by Arlan Galbraith (Gil Garratt). Together, the company co-wrote the script, act, play and perform the music which winningly intensifies the atmosphere unfolding in the two-act production. Starting with an astounding plot, the hard work of the team shines in the depth of the content, the polish of the performances, the music, the direction and the overall sheer entertainment value of the evening.

The Blyth Festival company ensemble. Photo: Terry Manzo.

It is a fascinating story.

Arlan Galbraith hailed from a bankrupted pig farming family and, finding solace in raising pigeons as a boy, he builds this passion into PKI that he founds in 2001 with the view that sideline businesses are essential to a farm’s survival.

PKI ran for only seven years. Act One traces the business from its outset to the implosion of its unsustainable pyramid and Act Two the resulting trial. Galbraith sold pairs of “high-quality” breeding pigeons—whether for racing or food delicacy—to farmers with a contract to buy the offspring for the next ten years. By 2007 hundreds of farmers had made thousands yearly by selling birds back. However, the company collapsed in 2008 with Galbraith clearing over $40 million when he walked away from his obligation to buy-back 356 million dollars’ worth of birds devastating almost a thousand breeders across five provinces and 20 states in the US.

With no end-market for the offspring, he resold the fledgling birds on to new investors to raise the money to pay off existing farmers. His ruin was brought about when a local farming magazine investigated PKI to review the investment potential for farmers. What was to be a simple ratings article uncovers the illegal pyramid scheme.

Gil Garratt plays Arlan Galbraith. Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

Fully committed to his role, Gil Garratt kicks off by looking for buyers in the audience, cracking jokes and selling promises without pressing a decision. Garratt’s physicality—clicking his heels in rain boots, or contorting his body as he self-represents in the courtroom—is powerful and commanding. Fully convincing as Galbraith; the older down-to-earth pragmatic character, with a richly countrified accent that shifts inconsistently between generosity and deceitfulness as he constructs his Bernie Madoff-like fraud set incongruently in pigeon barns.

Garratt is literally transformed for this role, his riot of curls replaced by Galbraith’s balding hairline as he brings to life the affable, energetic, if dumpy and slightly pathetic oddball. Though perhaps shifty, he hardly comes across a financial predator. He sells his investment venture, as a sure bet to earn extra money and free up family time. He slow-ball pitches his idea, speaking of trust and friendship, to the local surrounding farmers.

Formidable in their delivery

And the rest of the ensemble cast is equally successful and formidable in their delivery. Whether bringing upbeat comedic interludes or gut-wrench drama, the success of this production is a shared accomplishment. The musical performances are repeatedly moving as they range from energizing to hauntingly dramatic. The ensemble cast shifts easily between multiple roles of investors, employees, journalists, and lawyers. While Rebecca Auerbach & J.D. Nicholson bring a fierce honesty to their role as straight-talking farming couple and friends of Galbraith, the quality of their performance is wholly echoed across the performances by this talented cast.

It is a fascinating story to which director Severn Thomson and the company have done full justice by embracing the unanswered questions as to what fuelled Galbraith, as well as exploring the shame and devastation suffered by his victims, investors and employees. Is this a man led astray by dreams or a cruel egomaniac set on self-importance and exploiting vulnerable targets, such as the Mennonite and Amish communities?

The central success of this play is that the incredibly well researched and delivered narrative defies a conventional “wrap up” allowing the unknown nature behind this wholly human drama to spill over. The genius is that, despite all evidence, the audience is never handed a definitive answer as to whether Canada’s largest Ponzi scheme was the result of one man’s scheme or his dream.

The Pigeon King is playing at the National Arts Centre until May 5, 2019. Tickets cost $35–86 online and at the NAC Box Office.