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Friday, 11 February 2011

Memory Plays in Bolsheviki

Robert King stars in Bolsheviki
Bolsheviki, by David Fennario
Directed by Guy Sprung
Starring Robert King
Alternative Theatre Works, Factory 163, Stratford

The story: Journalist Jerry Nines recalls his meeting with Harry “Rosie” Rollins on Remembrance Day, 1978. The World War I veteran tells Jerry his story of the Great War, the battles he fought, the friends he lost, and the government who betrayed them on their return home. Rosie’s experiences are not always the ones highlighted in history books, however, and Jerry begins to understand why Rosie turned “Bolsheviki”, and how even today not much has changed.

Remembrance plays a large part in this play – but as Rosie notes, “sometimes when you get older what you remember are just things you wanted to happen.” Or else we remember what governments and history books tell us to. But not all facts are recorded in history books, and not all memories can be suppressed by government. Playwright David Fennario’s own 1978 meeting with a WWI veteran inspired this play which will find agreement in audiences with left-leaning tendencies, and perhaps confront uncomfortable truths in those who are pro-military.

The play is also about historical events that are glorified, and ones that are horrifying. Ypres and Vimy Ridge, and the muck that bogged men down. The officers who played with their soldiers lives like toys. Quebec’s anti-conscription riots, and the Winnipeg riots in which the Canadian government actually shot at protesters – made up of folks who’d risked their lives for the country in war. Canada's current troops in Afghanistan are also given mention, and although the historical accuracy of Jerry's statement about how the Taliban came to be in power is a bit fuzzy (for a long-time reporter), the message is the same - the glorification of war is only honourable if our veterans of those wars are treated with honour. The play’s intention is firmly in the de-glorification camp, as would be expected from Mr. Fennario, a long-time anti-war activist.

It is not to say that the play disrespects veterans, far from it. Deft direction from Guy Sprung and Robert King’s innate integrity bring a weight and pathos to both Rosie and Jerry; where other actors could easily turn Rosie into simply an old fool, or worse yet, a clown, Mr. King instead shows Rosie’s natural instinct for survival through gumption and just a hint of subversion. But he is never a clown, however much the play’s text allows him to crack up the audience with quips and jokes. With specifics and self-made sound effects that only a veteran could supply, Mr. King obviously respects Rosie’s un-rosy remembrances of battles and lost friends, as the memories seem as real to Rosie now as then. This makes them real and poignant for the audience, something not all actors could easily accomplish.

Factory 163 is a wonderful venue for just such a play; its rustic and cozy nature lends a great deal of intimacy in getting to know Rosie and the other characters. Bolsheviki contines here until February 12.

Other reviews:
Montreal Gazette
Montreal Mirror
On playwright David Fennario:
Montreal Gazette

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