'The Pigeon King' soars at Blyth Festival - Aug. 17, 2017
BY DENNY SCOTT
The Pigeon King is a great experience that shouldn’t be missed, but those looking for a deeper understanding of the story may need to supplement the play afterwards.
The show was crafted by a collective of artists at the Festival and deals with a controversial subject matter - hundreds of farmers being bilked out of millions of dollars. The play, however, takes a light-hearted look at the events of the Pigeon King scam.
While one could argue that the nature of the play, a musical-comedy with some drama thrown in, belies the subject matter, it takes what is a complex and technical issue and, through the lens of several different fictional families taken in by Arlan Galbraith’s all-too-real scheme, makes it relatable.
All the actors and actresses in the play adopt different guises, taking on roles on both sides of the scheme, but Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt’s may be the most memorable of play.
Garratt brings Galbraith to life and, through adopting the man’s mannerisms, fashion and hair style, becomes almost unrecognizable as anyone but The Pigeon King himself. It took this reviewer a few seconds to realize that Garratt and not another actor was on stage.
Blyth Festival familiar faces Rebecca Auerbach and J.D. Nicholsen bring to life a young farming couple from the Clinton area, who, after a family medical emergency, find themselves looking down the barrel of some lean years on the farm. Galbraith shows up with the lifeline they need and, after spending several hundred thousand dollars renovating one of their barns, buy into what would become one of Canada’s most notorious Ponzo schemes, Pigeon King International.
Jason Chesworth plays a young student trying to get into farming by borrowing money from his father, played by George Meanwell, and finds the door to farming he needs in Galbraith’s scheme.
Birgitte Solem first appears as one of Nicholsen and Auerbach’s children. Her character falls in love with the idea of being a pigeon farmer.
What the cast expertly brings to life on the stage is the “how” of the Pigeon King scheme. The play shows how Galbraith’s salesmanship earned him friends and breeders throughout communities both north and south of the border.
Music plays a big part in the show and, while some of the tunes seemed to somewhat clash with the mood on the stage at the time, overall the musical element adds significantly to the approachability of the story, with the exception of the first song, which features each performer picking up an instrument.
While the tune fit the start and was a great introduction to the play, the latter part of the song was so loud that Garratt’s monologue as Galbraith could scarce be heard from the middle of the theatre.
Chesworth brings back to the stage some of the powerful performances that he showed in Dear Johnny Deere several years ago.
Solem’s flute brought a whimsical feel to the music, a welcome addition from previous musicals on the stage. Her take on Mary Baxter, an editor for Better Farming, who was part of a collaborative story that may have signalled the downfall of Pigeon King International, was also interesting and further showed how ingrained Galbraith was in the lives and businesses of the partners he made through Pigeon King International.
All the actors involved did a great job flipping from one persona to the next and, with wise costume choices, characters are easily recognizable with no reminder necessary.
Also on the technical side, the theatre space is elegant in its multi-functionality. The same backdrop plays as a community hall, a farm home, a court room and several different pigeon barns and does so with just a few movable mesh-doors.
If there’s one drawback, it’s that the play left me wanting more, and not necessarily in a good way.
I don’t mean, I wanted to sit through another hour of the play, not that I’d be against that, but that I wanted to see more of what made the scam so infamous and more of the fallout afterwards.
Some scenes provided little information to story or character development for the amount of time they were on stage.
Some characters that served as one-off vehicles for second-hand information were unnecessary and the time spent there could have been focused on the greater themes of the story.
In particular, Galbraith’s accolades prior to forming Pigeon King International, such as his claims of being a member of the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union, the Canadian National Tippler Union and the National Birmingham Roller Club, are never touched upon in the play despite being prominently featured in the Festival program. Knowing about those claims would further cement Galbraith’s proficiency as a salesperson in my mind.
That shortfall aside, the play is enjoyable and, true to the directive of the Blyth Festival, focuses on a story that impacted people in Huron County and the surrounding communities.
It’s well worth the price of admission and shouldn’t be missed.
The Pigeon King runs Aug. 9 to Sept. 23. For tickets or more information, visit blythfestival.com or call 1-877-862-5984.