Niagara Falls Review, July 31, 2021
A SHORT HISTORY OF NIAGARA, created and performed by Mike Petersen and Alexandra Montagnese. Directed by Tim Carroll. At the Shaw Festival until Aug. 15. **** (out of five)
The return of the Shaw Festival hasn’t been lacking in surprises this month. From the outdoor drama of “The Devil’s Disciple” to the heartfelt doggie tale “Flush,” the company has made the best of less-than-ideal circumstances.
And now, along comes “A Short History of Niagara,” one of the intriguing casualties of the cancelled 2020 season. It was originally designed as a 30-minute puppet show to be performed at Fort George, but it’s now across the street at the outdoor BMO stage on the Festival Theatre grounds.
It wouldn’t matter where it’s performed – it is so wonderfully old school, it feels like you’re watching something plucked from a medieval festival. This may be the most purely entertaining and imaginative children’s show Shaw has ever done.
Just don’t call it simple. There is nothing simple about what puppeteers Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Petersen are doing here. Though they are visible on stage throughout, part of their skill is to seemingly disappear. Your focus is entirely on the wide array of puppets, props and little figures they use to tell – as the title says – a compact history of our region.
Most of the key moments are here. The show begins with a young Seneca girl plummeting over the falls in a suicide attempt only to be saved by the God Heno and brought to his home behind the water, becoming the Maid of the Mist.
We see the War of 1812 and the legend of Laura Secord, walking 32 kilometres to warn British troops that an attack was imminent after she overheard American soldiers talking. Petersen and Montagnese then use orange cellophane to show the burning of Newark, followed by the burning of the White House in retaliation.
All of this, mind you, is told with no dialogue. A superb mix of music and sound effects keep the story flowing as the puppeteers hit their cues flawlessly. That’s no surprise – Montagnese is a curator for Toronto’s puppet theatre Concrete Cabaret, while Petersen has worked on “Labyrinth” and “Fraggle Rock.” They can both tell a story through movement without overdoing it.
Before the show’s 30 minutes are up we see everything from Annie Edson Taylor’s barrel trip over the falls, to one of Blondin’s famed wirewalks over the gorge, to tourists visiting modern day Clifton Hill, complete with the Burger Monster. The biggest chuckle finds a busload of tourists arriving at the Shaw Festival itself, only to shrug and turn around.
The litmus test for Saturday’s opening show were two young girls sitting near the front with their parents. Could an old-fashioned puppet show compete with their lap top, cell phone or Netflix?
They were enthralled, and the first to clap when it was over.
“A Short History of Niagara” is only playing for two more weeks but it deserves a long encore.
John Law is a St. Catharines-based reporter for the Niagara Falls Review. Reach him via email: email@example.com
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