When Pierre Brault appears at the upcoming Ottawa Fringe Festival clad in Spartan armour, your mind may not instinctively leap to contemplating the state of the arts in modern-day Ottawa.
But pay attention, because Brault’s play set in the ancient Greek military powerhouse speaks to the role of art both then and now.
Brault’s new work, The Last Spartan, is a one-man show with five characters. The Ottawa playwright/actor is debuting it at the same festival where, in 1999, he made his own striking entrance as a solo artist playing multiple characters in the premiere of his much-acclaimed Canadian historical piece, Blood on the Moon.
This time out, Brault roots his story in a fictional Spartan playwright, Dorion of Laconia. Dorion has been writing shows in secret and is being prosecuted by a city-state that regulates art, making it play handmaiden to bigger goals like military might.
The play’s main character is Kaphalos, a soldier turned lawyer who’s been brought in to defend the playwright. When he was a member of the Spartan military, Kaphalos was taken prisoner by Athens, where he discovered the joys of art, and he has actually been secretly watching Dorion’s plays since returning to Sparta.
“The story is about how important art is to civilization. I wanted to ask the question, ‘How does art contribute to our history?’” says Brault (a history buff, Brault set his last play, Will Somers, in the court of King Henry VIII).
“Art is part of the historical record,” he adds.
The playwright, whose other shows have included 5 O’Clock Bells, about Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, got the idea for The Last Spartan about a decade ago when there was anxiety over possible cuts to the City of Ottawa’s arts budget, cuts that some residents felt were appropriate.
Recalls Brault, “We had people saying, ‘Why should I give money to the arts when we need this ambulance?’ You’re trying to explain, ‘Well, it’s not one or the other’ … Athens was a very strong power, but art still flourished.”
Brault worked up an early, multi-actor version of The Last Spartan, workshopped it at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and then tucked it away until deciding to resurrect it as a one-person show for the Fringe.
He didn’t decide to revisit the play now because the arts are under particular attack but he does know that arts funding is always precarious and that its perilous state is often based on misunderstanding.
“I still getting people asking me what I do for a living. When I tell them, they say, ‘No, what do you do?’”
Besides, he felt his script was a good one and that the Fringe Festival, which is about theatrical experimentation, would be the right venue for this show.
Brault says that when he made his Fringe debut with Blood on the Moon — which is about James Patrick Whelan , who was hanged for the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee – his expectations were modest: To make his entrance fee back.
His pre-show jitters were also the same then as they are now: “I’m not ready. I’m going to fall on my face. This is going to be terrible. How am I going to remember all these bloody lines?”
Instead, the rousing response to his solo debut “exceeded all my expectations and allowed me to continue doing this work. It allowed me to discover myself and how I can tell a story.
“That’s what I hope for this (show) – that I can maintain that storytelling ability.”
This year’s Fringe Festival is hosting 57 shows in multiple downtown venues. Here are my picks.
Interstellar Elder: Badass Grandma in Space from Victoria, B.C.: Ingrid Hansen (Little Orange Man) creates rich, intriguing worlds with her physicality and off-kilter vision. Look for both in this story of the last human – a geriatric astronaut.
MAL. Ottawa: Remember The Perfect Man, Rachelle Elie’s empathetic clown show from a few years ago? JOE is back, this time with his girlfriend Susan, and they are tackling the bad stuff in the world.
Josephine, a burlesque cabaret dream play from Orlando, U.S.: The musical biography of Jazz Age performer Josephine Baker, the first African-American international superstar and all-round attention magnet.
A Brief History of Petty Crime, Toronto: British comedian Jimmy Hogg brings physicality, rapid-fire delivery and a startling wit to his tangential-styled storytelling.
Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert, St. Albert, Alberta: This tribute to the two legendary French performers has played the Fringe before but its return is a welcome one.
Fool Muun Komming, Minneapolis, U.S.: An asteroid-riding alien with good intentions but limited understanding visits Earth in this oddball piece that only a fringe festival would host.
The Last Spartan, Ottawa: Pierre Brault’s new one-man, multi-character comedy/drama asks how a culture will be remembered if it has created no art.
Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit, Winnipeg: Much-praised stand-up comedy by Adam Schwartz about dealing with his own disability.
The Ottawa Fringe Festival runs June 14-24. ottawafringe.com, 613-232-6162