Controversial Canadian history comes to life in Louis Riel: A Comic-strip Stage Play

Chester Brown’s landmark graphic novel is adapted to the stage with choreographed 2D puppets and vivid sound design.

Riel ©Sabrina Reeves (4)
From Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play. Photos by Sabrina Reeves

Was Louis Riel a shit disturber, charismatic leader or crazed zealot?

His legacy has been in dispute since way before the Canadian government tried and executed him for treason in 1885. What Riel accomplished before that date — founding Manitoba, leading two rebellions — has earned him the sobriquet of “most written about Canadian figure in history.”

Riel was born near Winnipeg, studied in Montreal and eventually became a Métis leader when he returned home. In defending his people’s rights and property, Riel defied the anglophone, Protestant establishment with designs on the northwestern lands of soon-to-be Canada. His Catholic faith grew stronger over the years, as his mental state unravelled.

Montreal cartoonist Chester Brown explored these different parts of Riel’s Heritage Minute-worthy bio in a matter-of-fact comic book, first serialized then later released by Drawn & Quarterly as a novel to wide acclaim in 2003.

Now, after years of careful development, there is a bilingual, faithful transcription of Brown’s 2D vision for the stage, complete with clean, black-and-white puppets, delightful sound design and a humorous touch.

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play got its world premiere last week at la Chapelle Theatre under the cadres of Montréal en Lumière and Festival de Casteliers.

Years ago, director Zach Fraser wandered into Montreal’s comic book festival while walking his dog in Lafontaine Park. There, he discovered Brown’s book and started to adapt it with RustWerk Refinery co-founder Attila Clemann. (The duo takes their time; this is only their second show since starting up nearly a decade ago, the first being the festival hit …And Stockings for the Ladies.)

Riel ©Sabrina Reeves (1)

Fraser estimates some 1,000 man-hours went into the construction of over 200 monochromatic puppets and assorted pieces, which include faces, large arms, arrows, speeding trains and Parliament itself. Volunteers were conscripted to help colour in Riel’s tousled hair and outline John A. Macdonald’s enlarged nose with black Sharpies.

The 2D puppets appear simple, but their choreography was carefully devised.

“On one level, it’s a very naive approach and presentation, but on another level, there’s a lot of intricacies behind the scenes that bring (the story) to life,” Fraser told me last week.

The five performers have a number of puppets to pick up and discard backstage through the show: not to mention the actors’ comic timing and energy is important, as their presence is not wholly shrouded by their puppets. Cat Lemieux, Anne Lalancette, Jon Lachlan Stewart, Jimmy Blais and Charles Bender (who plays Riel) turn in strong performances that humanize history’s politicians, priests, doctors, soldiers and farmers.

They are framed by a Romain Fabre’s enlarged white puppet set. The original music by Luc Prairie and vivid sound design provides an immersive and impressive soundtrack.

The script carefully adheres to Brown’s story, omitting some details of Riel’s life. There’s a fleeting scene with his wife, and mention of his children, but we don’t learn more about them.

And while the graphic novel was initially serialized in 10 parts, Riel’s story on stage is broken into four pieces, flipping from Riel’s trial to flashbacks. This makes keeping tabs a bit tough, despite the folksy lettering that announces the date and location of each scene.

But Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play is a haunting yet funny look at a man whose life continues to defy lazy hagiography, popping out of our country’s history with colour and passion in the 130 years since he walked to the gallows. ■

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play continues until March 5 at Théâtre la Chapelle (3700 St-Dominique). 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission. To buy tickets ($32.50/$28.50 for people under 30) visit la Chapelle’s box office or call 514-843-7738