For the past several weeks I have heard people talking about No Great Mischief (basically since it was announced as being a part of the summer series of plays at the Highland Arts Theatre in the spring). They talked about how touching it was, and how good it was, and that it was OUR story. All based on the book by Alistair MacLeod. I have never read the book, so I really had no opinion of the play before I walked in to see it last Saturday night.
It actually does a really good job of telling the Cape Breton story—it is a good version of OUR story. The characters in the script (by David S. Young) are relatable (everyone’s got a member of the MacDonald family in it somewhere), the situations are plausibly tragic without being overwhelmingly depressing, and the development of the story is natural and entertaining.
There are dozens of characters in this script, all played by eight actors who never leave the stage (when not acting in the scene, they sit to the side and watch). Some of the characters are merely younger versions of themselves with no help from props or costuming—just their own voices and body language. Alexander MacDonald (played by Tony Hajjar) acts as both the central character and the play’s narrator, jumping in and out of scenes/decades in a way that could have been confusing but, due to the solid teamwork of everyone on stage, wasn’t. Jumping from a toddler to a college graduate to a patriarch of his own family was done skillfully and fluidly. It was never unclear which version of Alexander the audience was looking at.
Alex’s grandfathers (played by Ken Chisholm and Bruce Cathcart) were each played very differently (one very jokey and the other very serious), but both came across as people that you would want to have as your own grandfather. Very warm, caring performances from both.
Alex’s brother, Calum, was played very well by Sam White. White is mostly known for his comedic work of late—physical comedy and silly voices—but he brought so much depth to the alcoholic downfall of Calum. There is a big risk with this character: he could either be played too melodramatically to the point of overwhelming the audience, or as a parody of a person with a problem—a clown. White’s performance walked the line of these two options, giving the character a great level of realism; he got laughs where it made sense, and he made people cry when it made sense. A lot of range in a very physically demanding role.
The group scenes (notably the family gathered for their family legends in the first act and the mine brawl in the second) were especially interesting to watch. Seeing all eight actors on stage, working as a team (if not a family). Cleary this was a production that each of the actors understood not only what they were doing but what everyone else was doing as well.
A few scenes—for example the mine-bunk scenes—could stand to be re-blocked in later productions; a lot of muddled conversation where it wasn’t very clear who was talking to whom, or who was even part of the scene. Aside from that and a few slight technical errors, this production was very tight.
Before I end this review, I must talk about the set. People have been doing some very interesting work with sets lately (perhaps due to the idea of achieving excellence as director Todd Hiscock very eloquently brought up in his director’s notes) and this play is no exception. The entire set consisted of half a dozen chairs which throughout the show became: a living room, a funeral, a mine, a bunkhouse, a boat, and a few other noticeably different settings. I’m not sure if it was the confidence of the actors, or theatre magic, but each set re-arrangement was completely believable and charming. The etchings which were projected onto the background flats added a nod to the audience so they could follow what was happening in the fairly complicated time-jumping play.
As a director, Todd Hiscock demands the best of everyone who is working with him (actors, crew, designers, etc). The Highland Arts Theatre’s No Great Mischief is a great example of what can be accomplished when that happens.
You have two more chances to see No Great Mischief at the Highland Arts Theatre. It will be performed on Saturdays (July 25 and August 1) at 8:00pm as a part of the HAT Summer Series of plays. Visit HighlandArtsTheatre.com for more details.