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“It’s History Come Alive” at Laurier House

by Catherine Lawson The Ottawa Citizen

PHOTO: Rod MacIver,
The Ottawa Citizen
Chris Roberts, who plays Mackenzie King, and Gabrielle Mackenzie help bring history to life at Laurier House.

Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s first francophone prime minister, was a celebrity in Europe where his speeches drew thousands. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, was a superb politician with a secret passion for the paranormal.

If these two men had been American presidents, their lives would no doubt be dramatized in major Hollywood films.

But this is Canada, so instead we have Theatre on the Veranda at Laurier House National Historic Site. Five days a week, two 20-minute vignettes are performed on the spacious veranda, bringing King and Laurier to life for tea-sipping tourists.

The three different playlets (two in English, one in French) were written and directed by John Muggleton. After a month of research and another of writing, he believes both men’s lives would make great movie scripts.

Muggleton is also quite sure the films will never be made. Canadian history just doesn’t have a big enough fan base.

There is a small group of people who do care, says Muggleton, and they “are fiercely interested” as well as hugely appreciative of Theatre on the Veranda.

Chris Roberts, who plays King, says people who knew King tell him he has captured all of the late prime minister’s mannerisms. Roberts also says he catches people shaking their heads in disbelief at his resemblance to King. “It’s history come alive,” he says.

Gabrielle Mackenzie, who plays the only fictional character in the vignettes — a somewhat saucy maid — says many people are inspired by the performances to learn more. “They leave here saying, ‘I’m going to go and read all about him.'”

One vignette, titled Our Home, features King and Laurier in a light-hearted banter, including a little one upmanship between the two men. The scenario is not far-fetched — Laurier served as young King’s mentor, and bequeathed Laurier House to him.

The substantial residence sits on Laurier Avenue at the corner of Chapel Street in Sandy Hill. From 1897 to 1948 the house occupied a central position in the political life of Canada, first as Laurier’s home and, after his death, King’s. Today it serves as a museum and memorial to the two men.

Parks Canada, which runs the museum, asked BigTime Productions, a corporate entertainment company, to produce Theatre on the Veranda. Big-Time is best known in Ottawa for its Murder Mystery dinner theatre.

Audiences were small when performances first began at Laurier House in June. Although sell-outs are now common, Muggleton laments that not enough people are attending the French language performances. Actor Claude Lavoie, best known for his work with Gatineau’s Théâtre de l’Île, plays Laurier in a one-man show.

“Claude brings the speeches to life.”

King and Country features King’s radio address to the nation following the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, and also makes mention of King’s private pursuits, which included séances, and his utter devotion to his mother and pet dog, even after their deaths.

A rumpled, unassuming looking man, King also had a considerable ego and could be prickly.

“Can we get back to my political career,” he snaps at his maid when she dwells too long on the supernatural.

Roberts was a fixture in Ottawa community theatre productions before being cast as King.

It’s a satisfying role, and it could become a long-running engagement. BigTime producer Peter Dillon is attempting to arrange a tour of high schools for Theatre on the Veranda.

Theatre on the Veranda continues until Sept. 6. It includes a guided tour of Laurier House, tea and sweets, and a performance. Reservations are recommended. Tickets & times, 992-8142.

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CATEGORIES: Insider, Press

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