Festival's 'The Pigeon King' connects with NAC audiences - May 2, 2019
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The Pigeon King, the hit that premiered at the Blyth Festival in 2017, opened at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa on Friday night, garnering standing ovations from audiences throughout the weekend.
The play’s two-week run was announced just under a year ago, marking the first time that a Blyth Festival-produced play, featuring all of the Festival creators and actors, has graced the Ottawa stage.
In an interview with The Citizen, Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt said the first weekend of shows has been truly rewarding and that it’s been amazing to see the buy-in from Ottawa audiences, as well as some familiar faces.
For opening night, Huron-Bruce federal Liberal candidate Allan Thompson was in the audience, in addition to North Huron Reeve Bernie Bailey, who also made the cross-province trip.
On Saturday night, the Festival artists shared the NAC building with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, which saw Canadian performers like Golden Globe winner Sandra Oh, Rick Mercer and Colm Feore in attendance at the red carpet affair.
The story that Festival audiences have come to know and love brought the Ottawa audience to its feet on Saturday night.
Garratt said that while he has been confident in the show and knew it had national appeal, he didn’t think audiences in the nation’s capital would embrace it as wholly as they have.
In the early days of rehearsing to bring the show to Ottawa, Garratt said there were jokes among the cast that Ottawa residents may need subtitles for Garratt’s Arlan Galbraith, the head of Pigeon King International, and his rural twang.
However, the audiences have connected with the show and the experience has been a positive one thus far, Garratt said.
The sets were taken from Blyth to Ottawa, transporting the Festival experience to the NAC, although the theatre that is hosting the show is larger than Memorial Hall.
Another change is that Festival regular Greg Gale has taken over the roles played by Pigeon King co-creator Jason Chesworth and he doesn’t miss a beat, picking up not only Chesworth’s characters, but his guitar-playing prowess.
Garratt leans into the too-weird-to-believe side of his take on Galbraith and his body language alone on stage would elicit laughter from the audience, whether it was Galbraith’s knee-slapping (to him) jokes on the farm or his bizarre courtroom behaviour. He’s definitely having more fun with the character every time The Pigeon King hits the stage.
The rest of the cast took their full range of talents to Ottawa, with J.D. Nicholsen and Rebecca Auerbach giving audiences music that would be at home on any Canadian stage. Musical director and actor George Meanwell shines as the cast’s multi-instrumentalist, while seasoned actor Birgitte Solem excels in her role as the plucky young journalist who exposed Galbraith’s scheme in the first place. In many ways, Solem is the audience’s touchstone for the often confusing aspects of Galbraith’s story, whether it’s the pyramid scheme revelation or the strange goings-on during Galbraith’s trial.
The cast has received help from home for their NAC production, with Festival veteran stage manager Heather Thompson making the trip and keeping everyone on time and in place throughout the production.
In his interview with The Citizen, Garratt said that the success of The Pigeon King in Ottawa really affirms what he feels he and others have been saying about the Blyth Festival for years, that it is truly producing some of the best and most important work in Canada and that it would be at home on any stage across the country.
He says that while the support from Ottawa audiences has been inspiring, it has also been great to see all of the Huron County residents making the trip to the eastern tip of the province to see the show. He says that it means a lot to him and his fellow artists.
While Thompson, Bailey and others were in the audience for opening night, there was a reception on Tuesday night that welcomed a number of locals to the city.
He said that support really emphasizes the community spirit that has not only supported The Pigeon King, but the Blyth Festival itself for all these years.
Speaking of Bailey making the trip for opening night, Garratt said that if a Toronto theatre company had a show opening in Vancouver, Mayor John Tory wouldn’t get on a plane to go cheer on that company, so that support from Huron County is very special.
The Pigeon King is on stage at the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre until May 5. Tickets are on sale now and there are student and rush ticket options available. For more information, visit the NAC online at nac-cna.ca.