Magic Unicorn Island
Metro Studio, Victoria
May 22, 2015
The Incompleat Folksinger
Written by Pete Seeger
Adapted by Ross Desprez and Mark Hellman
Performed by Mark Hellman
May 23, 2015
Nothing says boomer nostalgia like the word hootenanny. Add the Pete Seeger song list, a full-throated performer such as Mark Hellman and you’ve got yourself a 60-year reunion of old lefties, unionists and what’s left of the 60s protest movement. This show, the finale to a well curated line-up of solo artists, closed Uno Fest on Sunday with a rousing singalong.
Seeger, who died last year at 94, has hardly been forgotten, but this show, with Hellman impersonating the lifelong activist as well as narrating his story, reminded us of what an influential artist the New York singer was. Son of a musicologist, he used to go along with his father on folk tune-gathering expeditions to the deep South. In his late teens, a Harvard dropout, Seeger heard his calling in singing for political causes. In 1945, he was a founder, with Woodie Guthrie and others, of the People’s Songs organization; from that moment on there wasn’t a protest that could get very far without Pete Seeger.
Hellman is less assured as a narrator than a singer. But he certainly underscored the Seeger dictum, “a good song can only do good.” From Seeger’s days in union halls with Woodie Guthrie (“Solidarity Forever”/ “I’m sticking to the Union”) to his civil rights activism and support for Paul Robeson (“We Shall Overcome”) to participation in Vietnam War protests (“Where Have all the Flowers Gone”) and prosecution by the House Unamerican Activities Committee (he beat the rap), The Incompleat Folksinger is a piece of musical/political history that entertains as much as it edifies.
The same might be said for Magic Unicorn Island, created and performed by Jayson McDonald of London, Ontario.
The show had a strange opening, a post-apocalyptic scene of a caveman type cooking over a fire made of discarded furniture: all in mime. That didn’t bode well, but once McDonald launched into his script, playing multiple roles in an uproarious dystopic scenario set in the aftermath of planetary collapse, the fun began. A Bush-like persona with an imperious mien is president of the United Empire, the one big global state. Another glib character is a TV presenter, delivering the news as if it were a game show (Big news is an appearance by “ageing pop star Rihanna.”). A legislator delivers one of the latest dicta: “You have the constitutional right to bear arms, also you will be shot on sight. Endless war is discussed. And then the kicker: in pursuit of the one world state, the government of the United Empire declares war on its own children. They’ve abandoned the parents, left them to greed and conflict and established their own country on Magic Unicorn Island. A summit between the 14-year-old head of MUI and the Scotch-sipping prez of United Empire fails to avert the crisis. You can guess the outcome.
A clever mix of Swiftian satire, comedy, speculative fiction and shock tactics – in one tireless performer — Magic Unicorn Island summed up what Uno Fest does best: makes us laugh and makes us uncomfortable, in about equal parts.