Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Blustery weather on May 14 did not dampen the enthusiasm of the student ensemble presenting Kat Sandler’s “#The Donnelly Project”. Her adaptation of Sticks and Stones by James Reaney is part one of his trilogy about the notorious Donnelly family. The chilly outdoor performance space behind the Scarborough Arts Centre on Kingston Road, overlooking Lake Ontario, heightened the drama. The Donnelly Project was an artistic collaboration between the Tarragon Theatre (which premiered Reaney’s play in 1973); Scarborough Arts; and R.H. King Secondary School Arts Management program. Agincourt Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto, Scarborough (UTSC) also participated.
Photo courtesy of Tarragon Theatre
Anne Wessels, Director of Education, Tarragon Theatre, and Sasha Kovacs, Program Director of Scarborough Arts, coordinated the project, in honour of the 45th Anniversary of the Tarragon. (The presentation was also in memory of Jerry Franken, from the original cast). I hadn’t seen the play before and really enjoyed this production. Sandler adapted Reaney’s play and retained his distinctive dramatic elements: ensemble acting, choral speaking, classic structure, minimal scenery and props. Music, especially singing and playing the folk song “John Barleycorn,” was an essential part of the play. The violent treatment of the barley mirrored the violence inflicted on the Donnelly’s.
A brief summary of the story, as told by Reaney & Sandler: – James and Johanna (or Judith) Donnelly emigrated from Ireland in 1842, with their first son, and settled near Lucan and London. They farmed and had six more children. In Ireland, they had refused to join the Whitefeet, a secret, anti-Protestant society, militant and violent. James hoped to escape this problem in the new country, but harassment persisted. James felt he was being cheated out of purchasing the land he had been promised. In a brawl, he killed one of his enemies and he was sentenced to death.
His wife persuaded the Governor-General to commute the sentence to imprisonment. She held farm and family together, but threats and problems continued after his release. Even when the family barn was burned down, they refused to leave – ending in the massacre of James, his wife, three sons, and a niece, on Feb. 4, 1880, probably by a vigilante committee. No one was ever convicted. It was moving to see the multi-cultural student ensemble, some from immigrant families, deal with this story of feuding, violence, and the desire to live freely.
Each participating school presented a portion of the play, with major characters played sequentially by various actors. The scenes were linked by effective ensemble work (choral speaking, singing, and movement), which gave the play a Brechtian feel. The production flowed smoothly and was both energetic and emotional. Actual sticks and stones were used effectively throughout the production (reminding us of the old adage). Other props included shirts on a clothesline and a large barrel – innocent-looking but used for torture. The shirts took on a ghostly aspect in a short dream-sequence near the end of the play.
This project helped engage young people in the excitement of theatre, and may encourage them to create their own plays. There were too many actors and crew to name individually, so I want to praise the work of all the students, their teachers, and the professionals involved. We need more collaborations like this.