Victorian parlour games could break out at any moment.
—Ian Mozdzen, artist
This year marks the bicentennial of Charles Dickens' birth. So what does the English Victorian novelist have to do with Winnipeg? More than you might think, according to Ian Mozdzen and Doug Melnyk, the local artist-performers behind Dalnavert Copperfield, a mad multimedia mash-up of fiction and history.
Turns out nineteenth-century Winnipeg could be downright Dickensian, a notion the two men explore in interactive performances involving lots of "Wretched Coincidences, Overt Folly and Sentimental Exuberance."
Melnyk and Mozdzen have been in residence at the Dalnavert Museum since February, immersed in Dickens' fiction and exploring the history of Dalnavert House, which was built in 1895 as the family home of Sir Hugh John MacDonald (the eighth premier of Manitoba and the son of Sir John A.)
Dickens was very concerned with social issues, particularly the vast gap between rich and poor, and Mozdzen and Melnyk are fascinated with the way Dalnavert's architecture embodies the social hierarchy of masters and servants. (The masters had state-of-the-art flush toilets; the servants only chamber pots. The masters had pretty paintings in their rooms; the servants "improving texts" that exhorted them to be content with their lot.)
As well, MacDonald had a streak of Victorian reforming zeal that would have fit nicely into a Dickens novel. Wayward boys were sometimes rescued from prison, housed in the basement and taught useful skills. (MacDonald Youth Services was named in Hugh John's honour in 1929.) One of Melnyk and Mozdzen's characters is a "Reformed Child Criminal" named Jack.
"Donkey Attack!" (Doug Melnyk)
The evening performances, which take only 10 people at a time, run into October and must be booked ahead. Wear comfy shoes and be up for anything. You'll be following the narrative from room to room and not just as a viewer: You'll actually be part of the performance.
You'll get a new Dickens-style name. You'll be assigned a social status - there's a "gentility test" midway through. You might have to wear a moustache. And "Victorian parlour games could break out at any moment," says Mozdzen. Be prepared.
There are scripted performance aspects, but there are also written texts scattered through the house, along with beautifully intricate pen-and-ink drawings by Melnyk and quirky, brilliant costumes constructed by Mozdzen from Dollar Store coffee filters, plastic garbage bags and duct tape.
While Dalnavert Copperfield is an affectionate ode to its rich source material, it's also decidedly subversive, enthusiastically eccentric and rather ribald, shaking up gender roles, bending sexual orientation and sending up lunatic Victorian racial theories. Its characters may be the symbolic descendents of Charles Dickens and John A. MacDonald, but the artists are fairly sure neither man would approve.