Evangeline an epic story of love and community

Josée Boudreau, Jay Davis and the Cast of Evangeline at the 2015 Charlottetown Festival. Photo credit Louise Vessey

Josée Boudreau, Jay Davis and the Cast of Evangeline at the 2015 Charlottetown Festival. Photo credit Louise Vessey

We’ve been hearing about the collaboration on Evangeline between the Citadel Theatre and the Charlottetown Festival for at least a few years, and it’s finally here! Evangeline is a fast-paced, touching imagining of one of the stories that might make up Canada’s history, playing at the Citadel until November 22, following a run at the Charlottetown Festival earlier this fall.

Evangeline is Ted Dykstra‘s adaptation of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, which was inspired by the expulsion of the Acadians from their home of Acadie (or Acadia in English). Originally a French colony, Acadie corresponds to parts of present-day Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick,  Prince Edward Island and Maine. While Acadie was transferred from France to Great Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, Acadians would not sign an oath of allegiance to Britain and so, as part of a military strategy against New France, Britain and New England deported almost all of the Acadians to other parts of New England and even Great Britain and France.

Of the thousands deported, Evangeline hones in on the experience of the citizens of Grand-Pré, specifically soulmates Evangeline Bellefontaine (played by the energetic Josée Boudreau) and Gabriel Lajeunesse (powerhouse Jay Davis). While Evangeline and Gabriel are completely fictional characters, a reference to the book Acadian Reminiscences: The True Story of Evangeline on Wikipedia says that the characters were based on real people. In the poem and the play, the British detain the men of Grand-Pré on Evangeline and Gabriel’s wedding day, and eventually put the two on separate boats – one bound for Philadelphia and the other for Carolina. Evangeline spans 40 years of Evangeline traversing the eastern coast of the United States trying to find her lover while Gabriel travels the same area as he tries to cope with his grief from believing Evangeline has died. Told as a soaring musical accompanied by a talented orchestra, Evangeline is a moving epic story that shows the power of love and community, while referencing a lesser-known event in Canadian history.

Before Evangeline, I’d only learned about Acadie in French language courses where the culture and the people’s expulsion from Canada was mentioned in passing when discussing different dialects of French. I’m not sure how much background others might have about Acadie and the Acadians, but at least in the curriculum I was taught, they seem to have been largely erased from Canada’s history. If that is the case for others, it raises a couple of interesting points about the play. Firstly, I found that keeping the primary focus on Evangeline and Gabriel’s story helped humanize the historic event – bringing it to a personal level to help convey the terribleness of the expulsion in a way that talking about it en masse does not. When learning about the expulsion of the Acadians, it’s easy to understand the loss of belongings and land, but Evangeline helps understand the deeper loss of the Acadian’s community, friends and family. However, while it’s great to have an access point to this part of our shared history we may not have encountered before, it’s important to remember to see Evangeline as a beautiful story of love and community against a constructed historical backdrop and as inspiration to further investigate the actual historical event. To fully contextualize Evangeline, it’s important to understand Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem was purposefully biased to emphasize Great Britain’s role in the expulsion and portray New England as a haven that welcomed the Acadians and did not contribute to the expulsion. This perspective is carried through to Evangeline and has to be recognized in order to fully understand the historical backdrop of the play.

Even understanding the bias in the text the play is adapted from, one thing I was confused about in the production was the shifting perspectives the story is told through and what overall understanding we are meant to leave with. Acadie is portrayed as a divine paradise both through the text (which at points actually calls it Eden and paradise) and through Jamie Nesbitt’s beautiful pastoral projections that augment Cory Sincennes’ set and underline the comparison being made between Acadie and Eden and Evangeline & Gabriel and Adam & Eve. This divine representation of Acadie and the Acadians, left me a little confused about whose perspective the story was being told from, as at certain moments in the play, the portrayal of the Acadian’s shifts from emphasizing their holiness to emphasizing their ‘otherness’ as represented by their French heritage. For example, in the scenes that feature interactions between Acadians and non-Acadians, the audience’s perspective shifts from seeing them as the Acadians see themselves to how others (presumably the British) see them – the actors suddenly have pronounced accents and use French, whereas these elements are not present in the scenes exclusively with Acadians. Yet, we know the entire scene isn’t portrayed through a British eye, as the British characters are portrayed as essentially malicious, except for a few lines of Colonel Winslow’s self-reflection where he expresses guilt over the orders he followed. Despite that guilt, however, we never see any hesitation to follow those orders or really any empathy for the British in the script. With plays rooted in historical events, it’s so easy to become absorbed by the world of the play that while you are suspending your disbelief, you are also accepting the accuracy of what’s being portrayed. The shifts in perspective can lend the impression of a balanced view of the situation, but I found I needed to take myself outside of the world of the play and keep in mind that ths shifting perspectives don’t create a balanced view of the actual events the original poem and the play are inspired by.

But now, on to this production itself.

Director Bob Baker has put together an excellent cast for Evangeline. Starting with the two leads – Josée Boudreau as Evangeline and Jay Davis as Gabriel. This emotion in this production gives both actors the room to blow the audience away with their vocal talent, expressiveness, and ability to convey the emotional journey of their characters with such resonance to the audience. In particular,  I really admired how Josée and Jay were able to communicate the chemistry and love their characters had for one other during the brief time they interacted on stage. That they were able to convey this to a 21st century audience using 18th century culturally appropriate forms of physical interaction was even more impressive. These two actors also have some of the most powerful voices I’ve ever heard on stage. Reflecting on the play, this is especially true of Josée, given that she is on stage sustaining that power and emotion during almost every scene in the 2 hour, 45 minute production. While Jay has slightly less stage time than Josée, his performance is no less impressive as he lets more emotion than I’ve maybe ever seen on stage from a male actor be expressed through his voice. Make sure to watch for a moment in the second act where he’s singing the word ‘Evangeline’ in an extended, almost operatic way – I couldn’t believe how long and how powerfully he was able to hold the word for.

This being a cross-country production, bravo for casting some incredible local Edmonton talent. Julien Arnold was so great at being the fiery Basil Lajeunesse. As the older version of Olivier Leblanc, Hunter Cardinal was able to communicate the pain and heaviness he was feeling as an adult, while drawing on the youthful characteristics from the way Kyden Seetoo portrayed young Olivier in the first half of the show. And I’ll never pass up an opportunity to see the range of emotion Sheldon Elter brings to the stage, this time in the ensemble of the townsfolk and as a trader who helps Evangeline at one point in her journey.

Cast of Evangeline at the 2015 Charlottetown Festival - Photo credit Louise Vessey

Cast of Evangeline at the 2015 Charlottetown Festival. Photo credit Louise Vessey

A final mention goes to Brent Carver as Father Felician whose huge vocal range lent itself very well to his role as a priest in touch with God and fulfilling the spiritual and emotional needs of the Grand-Pré townsfolk. Although his performances were more subtle than that of José and Jay, using his huge vocal range and integrating different inflections and trills into his performance helped convey his character’s connection to God and his spiritual and emotional leadership of othe community.

Finally, the entire cast works together as a powerful ensemble that really conveys the feeling of community, which is important in understanding how the loss of that community affects all characters in the play. One of the most meaningful examples of this is “The Wedding Song” in act one, which establishes Grand-Pré’s culture and traditions and helps the audience realize that Acadie was real – it really did exist and was truly, purposefully broken apart by others.

As usual, I loved Cory Sincennes’ set. One of the main themes of Evangeline is movement and displacement, and Cory’s set (which the program notes was based on the World Premier Production Design by Patrick Clark) has captured and helps enable that movement perfectly. The set is outlined by wooden beams representing the forest and wilderness that so much of the play takes place in. The middle of the set is a revolving stage which helps emphasize Evangeline’s never-ending journey. Some of the set pieces allowed Josée to climb and walk on them in scenes where Evangeline was traveling to try to find Gabriel, transforming into the mountains and valleys Evangeline encountered as she moved up and down the eastern coast of the United States. By using a revolving stage, Josée could move forwards on one set piece, and then the stage would rotate so that she could move back along the same set piece while giving the impression she was continuing to move forward on the set, not just walking back and forth in the same space.

Evangeline is a touching show filled with so much love and community, which I hope inspires people to learn more about that time in Canada’s history. I love that Ted Dykstra’s show has been brought to life through a partnership between the Citadel Theatre and the Charlottetown Festival and that, taking inspiration from the title character, the show continues to travel throughout this country, letting people experience the powerful way Evangeline and Gabriel’s love and journey to find one another and their community is brought to life.

Evangeline plays at the Citadel Theatre until November 22. Tickets are $25 – $105 through the Citadel Theatre. The show runs for 2 hours and 45 minutes, plus a 20 minute intermission. Check out the Citadel’s website for more information on the show and recordings of two of the songs from the Charlottetown Festival run.

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