Did Arlan Galbraith believe his own sales pitch? Others sure did. So many fell under his folksy spell that, between 2001 and 2008, farmers in southern Ontario, as far west as Alberta and in several U.S. states poured millions into Galbraith’s Ponzi scheme involving pigeon breeding.
Watching The Pigeon King — a Blyth Festival production at the NAC that moves with the sure, fleet speed of a bird’s throbbing heart — you understand why those farm families opened their wallets and purses to this round, balding guy from Cochrane, Ontario with the insinuating nasal voice and big ideas.
“We felt like we were drowning,” says one of his victims, referring to the desperate straits so many Canadian farmers – weather-dependent, indebted, pensionless – find themselves in.
Then along comes Galbraith, played here with a quick intelligence by Gil Garratt, Blyth’s artistic director and part of the show’s collective writing/acting team. A failed pig farmer with a heartening contempt for bankers, Galbraith is a mesmerizing mix of bluster, cornball jokes and evangelical zeal: “We are going to save the family farm,” he proclaims, his words a rallying cry of hope and, just maybe, self-serving cynicism.
His scheme involved racing pigeons. Buy a breeding pair for $250, and he’d pay $25 for every offspring for the next 10 years. It said so right in the contract.
And for a long time, he’s true to his word, writing regular cheques to his breeders, farm families who have taken out large loans, converted their barns (Steve Lucas’ set is warm, woody and cleverly multi-purpose) and are only too happy to attest that this fellow is fulfilling his promises.
These farm families are drawn with just enough detail to pull us into their lives and share in their hopes, anxieties and relationships. We see Galbraith through their mostly trusting eyes at the same time that we sit back, removed a bit from the action, an eyebrow cocked at what sounds too good to be true.
Like the many characters in the show – an accountant for Galbraith, lawyers, the musicians who strike up an occasional, country music-flavoured tune – the families are played by half a dozen actors, including the show’s director, Severn Thompson. It’s a strong cast with a flair for pacing, humour and drama on an intimate, credible scale.
With those families seeing regular cheques buoying up their bank accounts, money is pretty soon pouring into Pigeon King International, which is apparently supplying a huge Middle Eastern market hungry for racing pigeons. You can see where this is going even if, like those farmers, you want Galbraith to be telling the truth.
And it goes exactly where you expect it to.
One day, breeders are apparently raising birds for racing. Then, Galbraith announces that their birds are being sold as gourmet squab.
Next, he increased the price of breeding pairs and reduced what he paid for offspring, although, sounding like a wee-hours television commercial, he offered better prices if you bought before the deadline.
An intrepid reporter, Mary Fletcher, sniffed out what was going on and, with two others, pieced together an exposé (Fletcher is based loosely on Mary Baxter, the real-life reporter who worked on the story for Better Farming magazine).
Victims, especially the Amish farmers who were early adopters – “Get the pigeon religion!” sing the musicians in the show’s opening tune – pulled out.
Galbraith’s house of cards collapsed, taking down all the investors. He went on trial and, self-confident to the end, defended himself with an astounding lack of logic and finesse. His viciousness, merely hinted at in the show’s early going, emerges full-blown, while goodness and truth, in the form of an honest Pigeon King salesman testifying at the trial, also displays itself: “That’s always the way it is,” says the salesman, “You pay the farmer less, so we can all eat cheap.”
Yet, throughout this ripping good story – every once in awhile you think, “Good Lord, this all actually happened” — and even though the law came down on the side of right, it’s never really certain what Galbraith believed in his heart.
Did he consciously con everyone? Did he really believe that his scheme was infinitely expandable and would benefit the farm families he seemed to love? Did his natural lyricism, nicely captured at the end of the show as he relates a story about a little Amish girl, signal a kind of purity of vision or just the slippery words of a Ponzi schemer in muddy rubber boots?
That the question is never really answered speaks to the strength of the show and especially Garratt’s acting. And anyway, aren’t ambivalence and ambiguity both more interesting and more human than simple black and white?
The Pigeon King is a Blyth Festival production. In the Babs Asper Theatre until May 5. It was reviewed Friday. Tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca