author: mac brock | a&c editor
Root, Hog, or Die an explosive musical success.
The moment I entered the Cabaret stage at Globe Theatre for Root, Hog, or Die, I knew I was walking into something very out of the ordinary. A large divider wall was set up between the performance space and the door, through which the only way was a set of creaky saloon doors. Once I was through the door, I had left our world for set designer Rebecca Donison’s stunning western bar.
There was a smattering of saloon tables where audience was encouraged to seat themselves. They were all filled by the time I made my way into the show’s sold-out closing night, so I sat in the front row of a bank of seats behind the tables. The walls were lined on three sides with the flooring of Globe’s Christmas production, Peter and the Starcatcher. The walls stretched back behind the audience, allowing for a very successfully immersive feeling.
The show featured a small cast: Kaitlyn Semple (who was also the co-creator with director Greg Ochitwa, choreographer and musical director) as the rough and tumble Pearl, Caitlin Vancoughnett as Pearl’s more cautious partner Clementine, Donny Ready as no-nonsense Wolf Holliday, and Josh Beaudry as up-to-no-good stranger Benny Buckleberry.
As the lights went down, the show started with one of its biggest highlights: co-creator, musical director, and performer Kaitlyn Semple with a macabre rendition of folk classic “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” Semple’s voice, with an incredible range from softly inviting to harsh and stirring, was met with distant echoes from Vancoughnett backstage. The effect was startling, unsettling, and hooked me instantly. Throughout the show, Semple and Vancoughnett’s vocal performances were consistently powerful with a marvelous duo dynamic, including a delightful piano duet of “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” Ready and Beaudry, though they were not as strong vocally as Semple or Vancoughnett, rounded the show’s sound with some powerful low harmonies.
Though the music was impeccable, the show itself adheres closer to the formula of “play with songs” – the songs served to enhance the mood rather than to advance the story or deepen characters. The storyline itself is where Root, Hog, or Die stumbled. Much like Westworld, the majority of the play was spent building suspense. About 60 of the 90 minutes of running time were spent on ominous talking about something bad happening later on, but little to nothing in terms of plot movement or character revelation. When characters entered or exited, there was almost no noticeable in terms of adjustment in the tone of the scene. That is by no means to say that it was poorly crafted: Ochitwa’s dialogue is spot-on, snappy, and clever, and created some wonderfully staged moments of anticipation.
The immersive environment was supplemented with a few moments breaking the proverbial fourth wall, where characters would acknowledge the presence of the audience. Though funny, some interactions felt like they belonged more in a dinner theatre atmosphere than the calibre of theatre the team had created.
Again in a parallel to Westworld, the wait led to one of the most memorable climaxes of the genre. The final 20 minutes of Root, Hog, or Die were masterfully staged, brilliantly written, and featured a haunting musical denouement by the entire cast. The suspense, after a long and drawn-out build, allowed for an explosively violent and heart-wrenching finale. Vancoughnett steals the show in the closing moments in a teary-eyed confrontation with the Ready’s intimidating and infuriating Holliday. As the lights came up, my friend next to me let out a quiet “wow.” I agreed.
Root, Hog, or Die is a visually stunning, funny, atmospheric piece. Thought it suffered from some pacing problems, Ochitwa, Semple, and company demonstrated that Saskatchewan artists have all the heft and might to create bold, highly memorable new theatre. Next time you hear their names attached to a project, you’ll know not to miss it.