Imagine Richard Greenblatt in a barnyard. Usually associated with urbane, sophisticated theatre such as his celebrated production 2 Pianos 4 Hands, this Toronto-based actor, playwright and director is now ensconced at the rural 4th Line Theatre near Millbrook, Ont., for the month of August.
Greenblatt is performing the role of Patrick Maguire, a Catholic Justice of the Peace in Cavan Township, Upper Canada, in 1854. The play is Robert Winslow’s The Cavan Blazers, which has been remounted to celebrate 4th Line’s 20th anniversary.
The Cavan Blazers was the first play ever performed at the theatre. It also set the company’s mandate – original Canadian plays, many with historical ties to the area running from Lake Ontario, north to Peterborough and Kawartha Lakes.
The play also introduced audiences to the unusual 4th Line stage, which is a yard surrounded by three barns adjacent to a large farmer’s field. Anyone who has attended 4th Line productions knows how the directors embrace this huge canvas.
For example, one scene in The Cavan Blazers has Protestant vigilantes, including three on horseback, sweeping through the field carrying firebrands in order to burn out a Catholic settlement. Buildings are torched, and the panicking settlers race out of the field and through the barnyard in their effort to escape the carnage. It’s this epic quality that distinguishes 4th Line productions.
Based on a true story, The Cavan Blazers chronicles the futile attempt by Justice Maguire(Greenblatt) to establish a Catholic parish in Cavan Township. The Blazers, led by Dane Swain (Edward Belanger), are the Protestant Orangemen who thwart his hopes.
What Winslow makes clear is that both sides imported this tribal warfare from Ireland, and in the course of the play, we hear stories of horrendous violence committed against their families in the home country. It is these crimes that fuel the unremitting bitterness. This is not a play with a happy ending.
Winslow, whose family farm is 4th Line’s home, was inspired by the Balkan Wars going on at the time. In that Christian/Muslim conflict, he saw parallels with the Protestant/Catholic intolerance of his home township, both historically and when he was growing up. Apparently, even today, Cavan is predominantly Protestant.
As usual, the huge cast includes professional actors and recent theatre school graduates, but 4th Line is also famous for its community involvement. The Cavan Blazers has more than 40 volunteer actors, from babes in arms to senior citizens, playing the Protestant mob and Catholic settlers.
The bulk of the show falls on the shoulders of Greenblatt and Belanger. Their roles call for them to play one note, and clearly, director Winslow has not called for subtlety. Greenblatt is desperation writ large, while Belanger is a coiled spring of anger. Both convey the intense self-righteousness that underlies their ideology.
Lisa Hamalainen gives a nicely restrained performance as Maguire’s long-suffering Methodist wife Ann, while Heidi Lynch’s Martha Cooney is a strong portrayal of a spirited and combative Catholic agitator. Special mention should be made of the core group of Blazer bullyboys and their menacing presence.
Once again, costume designer Krista Nauman has come up with authentic period costumes that express, variously, both poverty and wealth. 4th Line shows always have live music, and this time composer Justin Hiscox’s score is a potpourri of Irish jigs and ominous drumbeats. Belanger doubled as fight director and has created brutal encounters that make the audience gasp.
On an interesting side note, the members of the local Cavan Blazers hockey team attended the same performance that I saw. I wonder what they think of their name after seeing the show.
The Cavan Blazers continues at 4th Line Theatre until Aug. 27.
The Cavan Blazers
- Written and directed by Robert Winslow
- Starring Richard Greenblatt, Edward Belanger, Lisa Hamalainen, Mark Hiscox, Matt Gilbert and Heidi Lynch
- At 4th Line Theatre on Winslow Farm in Millbrook, Ont.