On right now at the Shaw Festival Theatre is a 30-minute play that should be required viewing for everyone in Niagara-on-the-Lake, tourists and locals alike.
A Short History of Niagara takes the audience along on a whirlwind ride spanning centuries, from the Haudenosaunee legend of the Maid of the Mist to our current pandemic. It’s an emotional, engaging and thoroughly entertaining lesson, all conveyed wordlessly via more than 70 different puppets, versatile stage props and an atmospheric soundtrack.
It’s the vision of Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll, in collaboration with renowned puppeteers Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Peterson.
Like all of Shaw’s performances so far this summer, the show is taking place outdoors under the tent on the grounds of the Festival Theatre. Unlike many of the other events there, though, this is not so much a pivot in planning.
“We’ve been working on this since 2019,” says Montagnese. “Originally this was supposed to happen at Fort George in a tent, outside, well before COVID. Of course, due to COVID, we weren’t able to be on that site, so Shaw is hosting us.”
The genesis of the idea for a 30-minute puppet show about Niagara’s history came about through discussions between Carroll and Parks Canada representatives.
“They got in touch with us,” Montagnese explains, “with the idea being, tourists who come to town, who don’t necessarily know that there’s a theatre company here, could see a puppet show in 30 minutes, while they are having their ice cream, or discovering Fort George. They could learn a bit about Niagara’s history, and maybe come back and see some plays after that.”
The three-year preparation process included research trips to Niagara for Montagnese and Peterson. Here they met with members of the NIagara Historical Society, who freely shared their knowledge and resources.
Montagnese points to an especially informative and fascinating Uber ride to the Laura Secord Homestead, during which their driver explained how locals often find historical artifacts and relics on their properties.
The research has resulted in accurate depictions of Secord’s historic walk, the burning of the town and then the White House in retaliation, and the daredevilry synonymous with nearby Niagara Falls.
Through it all, audiences are reminded of the importance of the region’s Indigenous roots as well. In fact, the land acknowledgment is displayed upon entering the tent, just a few feet from a signpost pointing in the direction of where some of the historical events took place.
Montagnese lauded Shaw board member Tim Johnson, director of the LON 360° Indigenous Education Initiative, and executive producer of the film RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked The World, for gifting his knowledge in crafting that side of the show.
On stage, the props are ingeniously created, and many of them can be flipped and knocked over to use multiple surfaces to depict different eras and events in the story.
Peterson and Montagnese, both dressed head to toe in white, dance around each other, communicating with their movements, their eyes and their hands as they gracefully lead and accompany their original puppets over the simple yet deceptively complex table-top set. Peterson refers to it as micro-choreography.
All the while, the bold, lilting soundtrack, featuring music by Ryan Cowl, and sound effects that in the outdoor setting can be mistaken for real-time sounds of nature, punctuate the story.
Peterson is somewhat of a legend in puppetry circles, having worked with Jim Henson’s crew on the immensely popular multinational Fraggle Rock television series 40 years ago, as well as on the film Labyrinth. He’s also no stranger to Shaw, having most recently been part of 2017’s production of the interactive one-act lunchtime play Wilde Tales.
Montagnese, who also often works as an actor on stage sans puppets, is the curator for Concrete Cabaret, Toronto’s seasonal puppet cabaret, and is the puppeteer behind Mosi & Moo, a popular YouTube series that aims to teach children how to dance.
The pair began working together about seven years ago, and recently collaborated on a show called Old Man and the River, which they have performed online for Toronto’s Theatre Direct.
Montagnese describes herself as a late 80s baby, who grew up watching Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. When she first met Peterson and began working with him in Toronto, she admits she was a bit starstruck by the veteran puppeteer.
Peterson, for his part, doesn’t remember her overly enthusiastic fangirling back then.
“She’s a great collaborator, and a great friend,” he says. “We speak a similar language. We know what it is we want to accomplish, and we have similar visions. She didn’t seem awestruck to me. Maybe she was trying hard to maintain her composure.”
“I had seen her perform puppetry already,” adds Peterson, “and she obviously had chops. She struck me immediately as incredibly intelligent.”
A Short History of Niagara is the first project they’ve created, designed and performed together from start to finish. Peterson built most of the puppets and cut out the set pieces in his Toronto workshop. Montagnese would then paint and detail those, and also create the costumes for the puppets.
They work so well together that in speaking with them separately, they often end up saying what amounts to the very same thing. Check out the following statements by the collaborators:
Peterson: “With puppetry, I find that it goes that extra step. Not only will the audience willingly suspend their disbelief, but they do so with utter glee. They lean forward and invest in the soul of the puppet. They want to believe in it.”
Montagnese: “Puppets are asking the audience to have even more empathy, and with even more suspension of disbelief. Because I’m holding this little object, and putting breath and focus and belief into it, you will too. It’s another step toward that empathy.”
The play is a delight to behold for any age. Peterson says they tried to make things as visually colourful and as clear as they could, so that any age from four to 94 could understand what they were doing. The non-verbal element also drops the barrier for non-English speakers.
Last Saturday, the first of two shows included a number of youngsters in the audience, and Montagnese was struck by their reaction to the performance.
“It’s so fabulous when they’re there,” she enthuses. “There’s a moment when they go ‘Oh, this is for me and I can participate,’ and they shout out. It’s so rewarding. The kids lead the audience in a way. A kid will shout out, and laugh, and not have the social cues that a more mature adult audience will have, so they go for it, they follow their impulses.”
Both Peterson and Montagnese mention that there were some scenes left on the puppet room floor, so to speak, leaving things open for a sequel some time in the future.
A Short History of Niagara is on now, with multiple performances each day, Tuesdays through Sundays, until August 15. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Visit shawfest.com for information.