Triple tribute to Benoit deftly handled

Gordon Jones
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Cutline: Daniel Payne (from left), Kelly Russell and Phil Churchill perform in Robert Chafes play Emiles Dream. Submitted photo

Performed on a stage furnished only with curved ramp and six suspended, dummy fiddles that are unhooked from time to time to serve as props, Robert Chafe's "Emile's Dream" is a work chronicling the life and showcasing the music of Emile Benoit, featuring not one, not two, but three identically costumed actor-fiddlers to represent the person and play the music of the folk musician from the Port-au-Port Peninsula.
The trio of Phil Churchill, Kelly Russell, and Daniel Payne tell and enact the story of Benoit's life, derived from the playwright's interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and proteges. The three actors toss dialogue and narrative back and forth between one another like a bouncing ball, while addressing the audience directly and disarmingly, like old-time story-tellers. The three fiddlers expertly play the traditional music and the new inspirations that formed Benoit's musical repertoire, sometimes singly, sometimes multiply voiced, interweaving fiddle music with evocation of a happily lived life.
The first half comprises familiar anecdotes of growing up in outport Newfoundland - jigging cod, scary stories of walking home in the dark, courtship and marriage, the scourge of tuberculosis, primitive folk medication, births and deaths, and the daily round of work and play.
Clean and candid in presentational effect, there is nevertheless a deal more sub-surface subtlety than at first meets the eye, not to mention a few tricks and feints within the stylistic simplicity. And woven into and around the storyline are a myriad of traditional tunes that the young Emile was playing at dances and parties, joyfully performed by three violin disciples following in the steps of the master.
Why three?
Perhaps because one is singularity, two is comparison (perhaps even competition), while three is collaboration, sharing the performance load as well as the musical memorialisation - amplifying, multiplying, even enriching the effect of the tale.
After the intermission, the second half of the story moves into the more recent past, when the elderly but still sprightly Benoit became a celebrity, re-discovered, feted, and promoted by folklorists (Gerry Thomas), folk groups (Pamela Morgan and Figgy Duff), local publishers (Kelly Russell), folk festivals at home and abroad, and local violinist (Christina Smith), all of whom were eager not only to honour the man but to ensure that his repertoire was recorded, archived, and saved. On opening night, it was a curious and touching experience to have two of the aforementioned sitting in the audience and a third onstage as one of the three Emiles, performing a script paying tribute not only to the legendary musician but to those who helped preserve the heritage transmitted by and through Emile Benoit.
Towards the end, the script becomes more sentimental and melancholy, as family dies and Emile sickens, the price of living about to be paid in the currency of mortality, with the dead Benoit's recorded voice introduced for the first and only time, poignantly overlapping and then displacing the singing of his living surrogates. But while the tristesse of decline, death, and burial is indulged, it is not allowed to prevail.
After The End, we are pulled back for a final rousing, triumphant, three-fiddle number, celebrating Benoit's musical tenacity and humanity.
Originally commissioned for performance in the Stephenville Festival, Robert Chafe's "Emile's Dream" was brought to St. John's by Artistic Fraud in association with the Festival. Directed by Jillian Keiley, and remarkably performed, both theatrically and instrumentally, by Churchill, Payne, and Russell, the affectionate and affecting exposition of the life and music of Emile Benoit ended a three-night run in the D. F. Cook Recital Hall on Sunday.
I hope you were fortunate enough to have been there on one of the nights.

Geographic location: Port Peninsula, Newfoundland, Stephenville St. John's

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