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Theatrical romp would shock the bloomers off a Victorian lady

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Sir Hugh John Macdonald, the Manitoba premier who owned the 1895 mansion now known as Dalnavert Museum, once attempted to sue two local theatre artists.

"There was a play that he thought besmirched the honour of his wife," says veteran local visual artist Doug Melnyk. "These two theatre artists were shaking things up."

Macdonald would probably be litigating like crazy if he knew about the cheeky "performative tour" that Melnyk and Ian Mozdzen, a dancer, writer, actor and performance artist, have devised at his restored Victorian home.

Dalnavert Copperfield, which opens Friday and has performances over the next three weekends, is a wildly irreverent mashup of Charles Dickens' memoir-like novel David Copperfield and the real-life history of Dalnavert, its owner and his family.

In one of many coincidences noted by Mozdzen, 34, and Melnyk, 60, Macdonald was born in 1850, the year the British novel was published.

The tour, which has funding from the Winnipeg Arts Council, is one of many events being held around the world to mark the 200th anniversary of Dickens' 1812 birth.

If you love fringe theatre, you'll probably appreciate the tour, says Dalnavert curator Jennifer Bisch, who has been programming artistic events to bring fresh audiences to the traditionally sedate museum.

The performative tour, described as "full of florid rhetoric," takes visitors inside rooms that are normally cordoned off. A maximum of 10 people per night can go on the fanciful, satirical walk-through.

It starts on the lawn, where your host, Dalnavert Copperfield (Mozdzen) plays cricket and shoots at crows with his rifle.

"(The character) is kind of the personification of the house. He lives the life of the house and of David Copperfield -- the conflation of the two," Mozdzen says.

He talks about a character named Tupper Traddles, for instance -- a merging of former Canadian prime minister Charles Tupper and the character Tommy Traddles from Dickens' narrative.

Dalnavert's sidekick is Mr. Doug (a play on Mr. Dick, a deranged character in the novel), a part-man, part-dog performed by Melnyk.

The tour visits every room except the basement. It will take about two hours, including an intermission with free tea and cookies.

Audience members are urged to wear comfortable shoes and be ready for interactive participation. You may, for instance, find yourself getting a new name, playing parlour games or donning disguises.

At one point, your profile will be assessed to determine whether you have the face of a true aristocrat like Macdonald. Those who fail will be sent down the servants' stairs. "Even the design of the stairs is to remind you of your class," says Melnyk.

Melnyk has illustrations throughout the house that are reminiscent of the David Copperfield illustrations by the artist known as Phiz. The duo has made costumes and props out of deliberately artificial materials such as plastic garbage bags and duct tape, emphasizing the fictive aspect of their intervention in the space. Masks and puppetry also play a part.

Mozdzen and Melnyk previously teamed up on the 2011 fringe show Monopoly Man Pit, which became notorious for a scene in which Mozdzen drank his own urine. This show won't be as outrageous. But they want to show some of the unsavoury aspects of Macdonald, such as his heavy drinking (despite his pro-Prohibition stance).

"Tupper recommended that he eat peanuts to stifle the smell of brandy on his breath," says Mozdzen.

Macdonald was certainly no supporter of the Métis leader now considered the father of Manitoba.

"He wanted to kill Louis Riel," says Melnyk. "In the dining room we have a bogus taxidermy piece, which is the head of Louis Riel. That would have been his fantasy, I think."

Theatre Preview

Dalnavert Copperfield

Dalnavert Museum, 61 Carlton St.

Friday to Sunday and Sept. 21-23, 28-30, and Oct. 5-7 at 7 p.m. (doors open 6:30 p.m.).

Tickets $15 at 204-943-2835

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2012 D8

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