Arts

One of Canada's most notorious families is getting the rock opera treatment — from beyond the grave

Few Canadian stories have been retold as often as that of the Donnellys, who were murdered by a drunken mob in 1880. But "Vigilante" offers a fresh take.

Jonathan Christenson's 'Vigilante' offers a fresh take on one a well-known Canadian tale

Vigilante. (David Cooper)

On the morning of February 4, 1880, shortly after 1am, a drunken mob burst into a farmhouse in Biddulph, Ontario, killing everyone they could find and subsequently burning the place to the ground.

The bunch who met their untimely end that night were the Donnellys — one of our country's most notorious families. Few Canadian stories have been retold as often as theirs; we have at least six theatrical interpretations (including James Reaney's famed trilogy), nine books, a 2007 TV series and a film in the works.

Despite this, director Jonathan Christenson's show Vigilante may yet offer a fresh take on this well-known tale. His production is the first time the unfortunate family's story will be presented as a rock opera.

Vigilante. (David Cooper)

"I'm always looking for the best musical expression to get to the core of the story, and in this case it felt so clear from the beginning that rock was the way to go," Christenson says. "The Donnelly boys are consistently described as this mix of dangerous and charismatic and they're all in their late teens or early 20s. There was something about the raw masculine energy and sense of rebellion that made rock the perfect fit."

From fleeing Ireland and establishing themselves in Canada through their conflicted dealings with neighbours, the murders and the subsequent court proceedings, the Donnellys' story spans more than four decades. Fitting it all into a single show is impossible — which is perhaps part of the reason we have so many interpretations.

I'm always looking for stories with mythic potential and larger-than-life characters that can challenge these ideas about what it means to be Canadian and what our theatre can be.-  Jonathan Christenson, Vigilante director

In conceiving his version, Christenson had considerable material to draw on, including wildly differing anecdotal reports from the night of the murders and testimony from both trials of mob leader James Carroll (neither of which yielded a conviction). The sheer volume of information — much of it very conflicting — meant considerable interpretation was not only possible but necessary. In Vigilante we meet the Donnellys posthumously, emerging bloody and blackened from their smouldering homestead, ready to share their story from beyond the grave.

Christenson is known for his darkly quirky stagings of literary classics including Frankenstein and Nevermore, based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. But with Vigilante, he wanted to tackle something with contemporary resonance that was also uniquely Canadian.

Vigilante. (David Cooper)

"It's a story about people who fled political and religious conflict in their country, only to encounter vigilante justice in their new home," he says. "Even though it's an old story, we see unsettling parallels with the current refugee crisis and the politics of fear around the world. A lot of what we put on stage in Canada are smaller, more domestic stories. I'm always looking for stories with mythic potential and larger-than-life characters that can challenge these ideas about what it means to be Canadian and what our theatre can be."

Choosing rock opera as his storytelling format is part of this. Canucks have produced a handful of big musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Come From Away — but something about the grandiosity of rock opera doesn't mesh with our consciousness the way it does with Americans.

"Rock is a popular form of music so I think it loses some artistic credibility in the rarefied world of theatre and opera," he says. "But it's a form that's speaking to audiences today. When I go to the theatre, I want to be taken on a journey and to feel things in a big way. Rock has the power to do that."

Vigilante. Written, composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson. Until April 15. National Arts Centre, Ottawa. www.nac-cna.ca

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