Vigilante a contemporary take on the Black Donnellys

By Curtis J Phillips

Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre in conjunction with Keyano Theatre, will raise the curtain on the compelling dark musical Vigilante with preview night November 28, 2013 and opening night November 29, 2013 with a seven-run performance, including a matinee, until December 7, 2013.

Written, directed and composed by Johnathan Christenson, artistic director of Catalyst Theatre, the premise of the play is based on the true story of the 11-member Donnelly family, better known as The Black Donnellys, who in 1845 immigrated to Canada from Ireland and found themselves in a feud in Middlesex County, Ontario.  That grudge culminated in the death of five family members February 4, 1880.

Despite eyewitness testimony no one was ever convicted of the heinous massacre.

In Vigilante we find a slight sway from the original version with six brothers along with their mother and father murdered, and a sister who dies naturally, all stuck in purgatory more than 100 years later.

“They are locked into the idea that there has to be vengeance taken. They are locked in purgatory until they resolve these issues. Eternally condemned to be there and stuck in a cycle of revenge and rage,” said Christenson, who in past years has brought the productions and adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, Frankenstein and Hunchback to Keyano Theatre from Catalyst Theatre. “Hopefully it will resonate in a contemporary way.”

Christenson admits that the plays that Catalyst Theatre have brought to Fort McMurray have in the most part, “focused on darker stories and they tend to have a darker edge, the music pretty dramatic,” but finds that our audiences are perfect test audiences.

He used this term, not in a negative sense: “It is a great relationship. Watching the audience and listening to them gives us a sense of what is working or not on stage. It allows us to get its feet up on the stage and to put it in front of an audience. Yes it is a trial audience but a critical audience.”

Many of these productions will go on tour after fine tuning what they learned in Fort McMurray.

In Vigilante, “The ghosts of the murdered family members will be telling their own version of the story and from their own perspectives. In a number of scenes they are talking amongst themselves, to themselves and to the audience. “

Actor Lucas Meeuse, 24, plays John Donnelly the youngest son of James Donnelly and his wife Johannah

Meeuse finds the role very tasking due to the very subject.

“We all want the justification of the murders. We are living, stuck, in an open space of air because we can’t get over what happened. There is that rage and hate held in and it creates such ah heightened sense of rage.

“It is hard to really dive in and have those feelings of rage. I have had to do a backstory for myself to have that rage and it is an intense process getting into the character. You have to have that bottled rage and you are on the burst of the bubble. It is totally exhausting for all of us to keep this rage and not exploding or start screaming all the time. You have this simmering anger in your gut – mentally, physically and emotionally – holding that in your gut for two hours or more. It is exhausting.”

Meeuse adds that the play has “splashes of contemporary and is definitely dark but innovative, new and fresh.”

Christenson echoes Meeuse’s description of the energy needed to make the play work: “Yes it is a pretty brutal story and the characters are filled by anger they can’t let go off. But we try to maintain a playful spirit in the rehearsal hall so that the dynamics on the stage and characters does not find its way into the cast and members.”

Rated PG. Meeuse concluded with this statement when asked who the play will appeal to. “Someone who is able to embrace the beauty of this show will have to go in with a non judgemental eye.”

Tickets available at Keyano Theatre Box Office.