Before the days of the cellphone, Internet, and Netflix, stories were shared in a more intimate fashion.
Without the ease of access to movies and the ability to binge-watch whatever is trending, the telling of a story held more value and importance and sought to bring communities together.
Caravan Farm Theatre’s The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw echoes back to the days of traditional storytelling, as a sold-out crowd of 400 gathers under the moonlight on the idyllic farm setting.
As the patrons wander through the serene setting, purchasing popcorn and beer from longtime sponsor Crannog Ales, it became clear that Caravan Farm Theatre offers more than just entertainment: they remind us why it’s important to disconnect from the constant buzz and LED lights of the city and reconnect with grassroots storytelling.
Bluegrass sounds sweep through the audience, and a funeral procession proceeds down the grassy hills, leading the crowd to one of two stage sets. Characters are promptly introduced as Weedy Peetstraw (Anton Lipovetsky) and his mother Hazel (Onalea Gilbertson) grieve the passing of Weedy’s father.
Caravan Farm Theatre classic The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw is a bluegrass reworking of the classic Faustian legend. A troubled young Weedy sells his soul to the devil for banjo-prowess, with one year and one day before his ticket comes due.
Comedic moments, such as a cheese-filled fight betwixt Reverend Jacob Ladder (Christopher Hunt) and Weedy, punctuate the serious dialogue. Despite its humour, calling The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw a comedy would be like calling a dollop of ice cream a sundae — it plays an important role, certainly, but it’s hardly the full scoop.
Music is the centrepiece of the production. Composer and musical director John Millard is masterful in his attack of the banjo, striking a chord with the audience and swooning all with his dulcet baritone.
Millard’s score is informative, entertaining, and beautifully composed, building a substantial base for the production to stand on.
Lipovetsky as Weedy Peetstraw is immediate in his ability to hook the audience. Whether he’s embodying heartbreak or showing off his A Night at the Roxbury-worthy dance moves, his banjo-picking and vocal-backed stage presence dominates the production.
And nowhere in The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw is Lipovetsky’s talent better demonstrated than in his heartwarming duet with Jeeva (Chelsea Russell).
The charming, albeit misguided, protagonist’s performance is matched only by the lovable misfit, Reverend Ladder.
“To err is human, distilled is divine.”
It’s this motto the uninhibited drunkard spews that makes the audience fall in love with him. It’s the polar opposite of what one would expect from a Reverend, but Hunt hits the proverbial nail on the head.
The fourth wall is consistently broken throughout the performance, though it’s done so with panache and no shortage of humour. Leading the charge for audience participation is the evil puppet master in a red and black pinstripe suite, Mr. Fleas (James Fagan Tait).
Mr. Fleas, a gaunt and comically-frightening presence, is backed by his trusty companion Hellhound (Randi Helmers). Hellhound is The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw’s comedic relief, as Helmers runs around on all fours cracking jokes about the dog-life before her transformation into the seductress Helen Back, whose sole-purpose is to keep Weedy and Jeeva apart.
As with all Faustian tales, Weedy is soon forced to surrender his soul to Scratch (Millard), though the Reverend informs Weedy of an escape clause: if he can take down the devil in a head-to-head battle of the banjos, he will maintain possession of his soul. Though it is swiftly recognized during the Deliverance-esque banjo duel that the devil plays like no mortal man. Fearful of his fate, Weedy and the gang rally to shout down the devil, striking Weedy’s foolish bargain from history.
While The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw follows the Faustian-skeleton, Caravan Farm Theatre’s rendition is unlike any other. Yes, The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw is the classic story of Faust, and yes, you may already know the tale, but seeing what Caravan Farm Theatre is able to do with it is a new and unimaginable experience.
It’s a telling of Faust through country-eyes. It hearkens back to the way stories were meant to be told.
The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw returns to Caravan Farm Theatre, with performances until Aug. 27. Shows at 7:30 p.m., gates at 6:30 p.m. Early Bird performances Aug. 2, 3, and 4: youth $15, adults $35, with a 30 per cent discount for groups of 6 or more for early bird performances. Regular shows Aug. 5-27: youth $15, adult $35. Pay-what-you-can Aug. 1, 8, 15, and 22: no reservations, first-come, first-served. Children 3 and under no charge. Tickets are available from the Ticket Seller, www.ticketseller.ca, 250-549-7469.