The show must go online for Infinithéâtre's playful King of Canada

Slated as the first indoor anglo theatre production to open in Montreal since the March lockdown, the Mackenzie King biodrama was to have been performed as a mock seance for intimate audiences.

Ellen David takes on dozens of characters opposite Brian Dooley as the country's longest-serving prime minister in King of Canada.

Slated as the first indoor anglo theatre production to open in Montreal since the March lockdown, Infinithéâtre’s King of Canada was to have been performed as a mock seance for intimate audiences at the downtown KIN Gallery this week. Alas, the question “is there anybody there?” must now be answered in the negative, thanks to the extended red zone restrictions.

Still, the world première of Paul Van Dyck’s two-hander, a playful poke at Mackenzie King, can still be enjoyed in live-streamed performances on Nov. 6 and 8.

Directed by Zach Fraser, who replaces Guy Sprung as Infinithéâtre’s artistic director in February, King of Canada stars Brian Dooley as Canada’s longest-serving prime minister. Playing opposite him — figuratively, as the pair are avoiding facing one another, for obvious reasons — will be multi-award-winning actor/director Ellen David, rapidly shape-shifting into some 30 characters, including the medium conducting the seance.

The incredibly busy David, who will join Infinithéâtre as artistic producer while also serving as artistic director of Theatre Lac Brome, was to have directed another Van Dyck play, Siberian Summer, at the Segal last May.

Speaking by phone about that cancellation, David says: “That was really heartbreaking, because it was a show about saying yes to life, about travelling, and about women of a certain age who just dive into things.”

As depressing as the constant rinse-and-repeat of dashed hopes has been for theatre folk throughout 2020, Fraser and David at least agree that the crisis is encouraging a reassessment, perhaps even a renewal, of skills and practices.

“It does become a game of finding a new staging vocabulary, a new physical language,” Fraser says over the phone. “I always think that some of the more interesting theatre occurs when we have really clear restrictions or constraints. It pushes us to think outside the box.”

Fraser points to the example of another theatre practice that had to contend with frequent outbreaks of the plague: “In commedia dell’arte, there’s the idea that the lovers want to touch, but they never actually do. The anticipation of the contact is often more compelling. I think that’s something that we can use in our production.” 

The Renaissance-era commedia was, of course, famous for its use of masks — which, along with puppetry, is a particular forte of Fraser (for instance, in his META-winning Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play). And though the only masks used for King of Canada have been the ones during rehearsals, the language of puppetry does find its way in there.

“There’s a little bit of actual puppet work in the piece,” says Fraser, adding that puppetry also informs the style of performance, particularly in David’s rapid-fire swapping of roles. “Because a lot of Ellen’s characters are snapshots, they do become sort of caricatures or archetypes. And I think that the language of puppetry serves us a lot here, because it’s going to the essence, a distillation, of the characters.”