Modelled on Brechtian theatre—that distinctive vaudeville aesthetic, the stirring songs, the explicit focus on social change—zietpunktheatre presents Remembering the Winnipeg General, writer Thomas McKechnie’s ode to working class rebellion. Walking into the space, with its crudely hand-painted slogans and purposeful clutter, I was struck by the atmosphere of heightened anticipation. There is a call to action hanging in the air long before the show begins.
We are taken back to the summer of 1919, when half of Winnipeg’s workers walked off the job. Telephone operators, transit employees, even police: rose up in solidarity with construction workers who, in response to skyrocketing inflation, demanded of their bosses that wages be raised to meet the higher costs of living. With so much of the workforce absent, the city’s resources ground almost to a complete halt.
What follows is the story of a labour dispute that quickly gained momentum and grew into a massive movement. In response, the government and Winnipeg’s elite, fearing for their power and wealth, joined forces to vilify the strikers and crush the uprising. It does a fine job of conveying the immigrant experience and the government’s use of Red Scare tactics to undermine reasonable requests for labour reform.
This production is, in essence, a stylish and entertaining history lesson—though far more clever and emotionally resonant than anything you’re likely to have encountered in a textbook. The structure is simple: the key events are laid out in clear, direct address while brief scenarios are acted-out to give us glimpses into the inner lives of specific individuals.
Director Erin Brandenburg’s production nails that stylized, Brechtian sense of dress-up and horseplay in its multi-purpose scenic elements. As crude and improvisational as it feels, Designer Shannon Lee Doyle has taken great care with the textures of the makeshift costumes, props and set dressing. McKechnie’s use of telling details—in both the historical information and the human stories woven throughout—is specific and compelling.
The production’s ability to foster a communal atmosphere amongst its audience is astounding. Right away, we are asked to join the performers in song. I have my fair share of social anxieties and this sort of experience often distresses me, but not here. Adding my voice to the chorus, I felt tied—viscerally—to the other people in the room. Even if only temporary, the experience is intense.
There are some intriguing “audience polls” where the performers ask for a show of hands in response to some challenging, thematically relevant questions. Going beyond generic audience participation, these segments prompt you to consider the potential cost and consequences of action—and, ultimately, of inaction. The choices are fraught with ethical and practical dilemmas, but the necessity for definitive choices, when weaving our social fabric, is made clear. On the fence is a dangerous place to be, you’re likely to just fall wherever that fence tips towards established power structures.
Both Heather Marie Annis and Ximena Huizi have a giddy intensity that drew me in immediately. Their dynamic is greatly enhanced by the perceptible difference in their unique energies. Huizi can be particularly menacing or rousing when the action calls for it. Annis has the funniest bits and seems, generally, to be the most comfortable with this style of performance. A comedy highlight for me is one delightful scene in which she gives an epic, moustache-twirling (or rather: moustache-popping!) portrayal of cartoon villainy that tickled me quite senseless.
The violence that finally ended the strike is conveyed with finely tuned, genuine gravitas. I felt the loss acutely, the build-up having been so thoughtful and measured. My spirits were raised quickly enough though with a rousing finale that acknowledges the progress that was eventually born out of this harrowing episode.
With humour and insight, Remembering the Winnipeg General shows us a piece of Canadian history that is both dark and inspiring. And, above all, it’s an intelligent and emotionally rich piece of theatre that feels intensely relevant.