'Pigeon King' remount an example of the Blyth Festival at its best - June 7, 2018
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The Pigeon King truly is the Blyth Festival at its best. The show showcases much of the Festival’s greatest achievements in the world of Canadian theatre all in one show.
The Pigeon King, last season’s runaway hit, is opening the 2018 season with a three-week run before the season officially begins in late June with the world premiere of Mark Crawford’s The New Canadian Curling Club.
While The Pigeon King tells the story of Pigeon King International, its founder Arlan Galbraith and his multi-million-dollar scheme, it’s very much about the farmers who wanted to believe Galbraith. Like so many Festival shows before it, The Pigeon King tells the story of disenfranchised Canadians whose tales aren’t often told.
The portrayal of farmers’ lives on the stage has been a Blyth tradition since Paul Thompson brought a group of Theatre Passe Muraille actors from Toronto to Goderich Township for what would eventually become The Farm Show. Now, decades later, the Festival is established as one of Canada’s top theatre centres and Thompson’s daughter Severn is lending her talent and vision to directing shows like The Pigeon King, bringing her award-winning style to shows of national import and bringing that storytelling legacy into the next generation.
The show stars Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt as Galbraith, another great Festival tradition that sees the Festival’s top professional flex his/her muscle, either on stage or behind the scenes directing a show every season.
The complete cast of creators has returned from last season, including Rebecca Auerbach, J.D. Nicholsen, Jason Chesworth, Birgitte Solem, George Meanwell and Garratt, and will soon take their show on the road as The Pigeon King will close out Ottawa’s National Arts Centre’s 2018/2019 season.
The show really does have it all. The jokes are quick and witty, the music is profound and well-composed and the emotions are very, very real. You can see why it’s the first show in years to be remounted and why it turned the head of Artistic Director Jillian Keiley at the National Arts Centre.
The story of Pigeon King International starts innocently enough and the audience feels as if they’re on the roller coaster ride with the farmers Galbraith would eventually defraud.
The pitch sounds good and Galbraith is a hell of a salesman. Optimism abounds in the first half until a plucky, young reporter starts asking questions about the company’s end market and the cracks soon start to show.
The audience then follows the story through Galbraith’s bizarre trial and walks alongside the farm families left to pick up the pieces of their lives once Pigeon King International has abandoned them.
The Festival is truly blessed to have assembled a team of theatre professionals so talented and so in love with Blyth. This team, its talent and collective potential could be a winning combination for the Blyth Festival for years to come.
Like so much great storytelling, especially that on stage, The Pigeon King excels most when focusing on the human side of the story. Whether it’s families left in tatters after wholly trusting Galbraith, former employees disheartened to discover they were part of an illegal operation or the downfall of Galbraith himself, The Pigeon King is a master class of exploration of the human condition.
Auerbach is stunning as always, gracing Memorial Hall not just with her acting prowess, but with her incredible singing voice. Nicholsen is equally excellent, whether it’s on the guitar, on the drums or as an injured old farmer optimistically looking ahead to easy days on the farm.
Chesworth is a force on the guitar and heartbreaking as a young farmer who goes to the “Bank of Mom and Dad” to make his pigeon dream come true, while Meanwell embodies the true multi-instrumentalist, impressing with everything from the banjo to the steel guitar to the violin.
Solem is smart and economical as the dogged reporter who breaks the case, unknowingly stepping into the story of a lifetime – all stemming from a reader’s question.
The real standout, however, is Garratt, whose Galbraith will go down as perhaps his greatest role on the Memorial Hall stage. He’s funny, believable and tragic, all at once.
And they all excel under Severn Thompson. An accomplished actor herself, Thompson has demonstrated the talent and ability to direct the Festival’s biggest shows and toughest challenges.
The Pigeon King is truly a show that’s not to be missed for fans of the Blyth Festival’s work. If you made a list of what’s great about Blyth Festival shows, all of those boxes would be ticked with The Pigeon King.
The Pigeon King runs until June 15.