Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

History buff mixes high- and low-brow in Louis Riel play

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THERE'S one key adjective that describes the work of Monster Theatre over the past decade.

"'Irreverent' is a word we get in almost every review," says Monster founder Ryan Gladstone, writer and solo performer of The Seven Lives of Louis Riel, the company's latest show to take a high-energy, imaginatively cheeky approach to history.

The brand-new Riel show, which earned four stars (and, yes, the word 'irreverent') from the Free Press, has been packing in the crowds at Venue 14, the King's Head Pub.

Gladstone, 32, said he undertakes "months and months and months" of research before crafting hit productions like The Canada Show: The Complete History of Canada in One Hour or Napoleon's Secret Diary. But he guards against letting the shows become stuffy recitations of dates, places and battles.

"Doing the history stuff is challenging, because I think it's easy to nerd out and be like, 'I find this really interesting, so the audience should, too,'" says the Calgarybred, Vancouver-based actor, making his ninth Winnipeg Fringe appearance in 10 years.

"We take it a step further. We have a concept. The Canada Show was not a bunch of sketches about Canada. It was a play about a French guy, an English guy and an aboriginal guy trying to tell the story of Canada. The Shakespeare Show was not just about Shakespeare's life. It was about the authorship question... written in iambic pentameter. "

"Jesus Christ: The Lost Years is the story you've never heard of Jesus. What we do is re-imagine history. If you don't know anything about (the subject), it doesn't matter. You're gonna come and laugh your ass off. Our goal is to have the high-brow and the low-brow mix.

The approach has been so successful that Gladstone makes a year-round living at it.

"We're one of the few fringe companies that has a big life outside of the fringe. We tour our shows all year long, across the country, to schools and other (theatres)."

Gladstone, who is also the director of Lavignia at Venue 3, has a fondness for our town. He's engaged to Winnipeg-bred Michelle Field, a fellow actor he met on the fringe circuit. "I'm marrying into the Winnipeg family," he jokes.

The history-mad actor is passionately interested in the controversial Riel, but found that the more books he read, the more contradictions arose about the legendary Métis leader who has been called a rebel, murderer, prophet, traitor, hero and madman.

"I think he's the most dynamic and argued-about figure in all of history anywhere, not just Canadian history. Nobody agrees on who he is."

The Riel show, which is slightly more serious than past Monster projects, takes the form of seven characters' perspectives on Riel, each in the form of a distinct movie genre, such as a spaghetti western and a film noir.

Gladstone loves nothing better than to have audience members challenge and debate him about history in the beer tent. "Bring it on," he says. "I'm ecstatic to be opening here in Riel Central."  

Creeping out the kids

RYAN Gladstone's first appearance at the Winnipeg Fringe, nine years ago, was in an outdoor kids' show. Based on that, he and fellow Monster Theatre artistic director Bruce Horak were invited to make a Kids' Fringe appearance a few years later, when they were in town with an adult show.

Gladstone recalls, laughing, that their repertoire choices were perhaps not the most appropriate.

"We sang a song called The Maginot Line, about the Nazis moving into France and stuff. No swears or anything. Then we sang a version of It's a Small World in a minor key, like a creepy thing. We started going on about how the Disney Corporation has lawyers everywhere, and they're watching your kids."

Kids' Fringe organizers did not rush to schedule an encore.

"They were like, 'That's OK, you don't have to come back.'"  

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2009 D3

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