COLM MAGNER: Searching for Abegweit just what people love to see

A deeply personal, funny, and poignant production complete with the aroma of brewing beer

Published on July 16, 2016

Lenny Gallant is an accomplished musician and storyteller whose leathery charm and rich voice remind me of the mature raconteur blues men I grew up listening to at the infamous Grossman’s Tavern  in Toronto

©Guardian file photo

Searching for Abegweit: The Island Songs & Stories of Lennie Gallant – directed by Jac Gautreau at the P.E.I. Brewing Company – is a P.E.I.-inspired multicultural musical and visual event featuring the music of Lennie Gallant and the paintings of his sister Karen Gallant.

When you walk into the performance space, the first thing you experience is the smell of brewing beer – a scent similar to the delicious aroma of rising bread, the stuff of life, that likely wafted out of every P.E.I. kitchen at the turn of the last century. 

And that, frankly, is a perfect introduction to this show, as is the cabaret setting.

The culmination of years of inner struggle and hard work by two of P.E.I.'s premier artists, the evening provides a deeply personal, funny, and poignant introduction to a singular family, as well as a visceral exploration of the larger and complex history of P.E.I.

Ms. Gallant's projected paintings (published with song lyrics in the accompanying book Peter’s Dream) often serve as an A-Minor key floating behind the music. Large, ghostlike white faces reflect an artistic voice clearly driven by inner vision, gorgeous strange faces which quickly transform in the next painting into big jovial Acadian men whooping it up on a dance floor surrounded by a sea of rich colour.

The cocky crow-eyed figure in a rakish pose holding an Acadian flag speaks to the special pride and intellectually curious sophistication which is part of the family's French heritage. There is sometimes a deliciously macabre element of claustrophobia and ineffable loneliness in Gallant's paintings, as in the title painting “Peter’s Dream” where a lonely figure puts his back into the oars in his little boat as clouds seemingly begin to descend and suffocate. 

During the song “Tell Me a Ghost Story,” the projected paintings epitomize the underlying theme of the show – our past, receding every moment, is always present as a potent reminder of where our future should be taking us.

The musical accompaniment by Sean Kemp, Jeremy and Jonathan Gallant, and Patricia Richard, is warm and accomplished, much like the strokes of paint Karen uses in her paintings – minute, simple, and subtle percussive elements that often bring a potent under-story to the surface one being told.

The military snare-drum-infused “Lord Selkirk’s Land” sings the story of Scottish emigration to P.E.I.  The bodhran-driven "Destination" perfectly communicates the age-old dance of a man and a woman struggling to love. And the merging of Mi’kmaq, Acadian and Scottish stories, full of longing, disappointment, joy and loneliness, lifts this production into technicolour.

Gallant is an accomplished musician and storyteller whose leathery charm and rich voice remind me of the mature raconteur blues men I grew up listening to at the infamous Grossman’s Tavern  in Toronto. He's there, he's “been around” as they say, so you best just watch and listen to him, carefully.  

Searching for Abegweit deserves a prominent and permanent place in this venue or a premier P.E.I. location as it is exactly what Islanders and visitors love to see. As defining and mature artistic expression, intrinsic to P.E.I., it deserves the recognition and support afforded to other key Island icons such as Anne of Green Gables. 

Colm Magner, who is a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, has worked as a playwright, actor, director and teacher for more than 30 years. 

His column, In the Wings, will appear regularly during the summer. To reach Colm, email inthewings61@gmail.com or find him at Twitter.com/IntheWings61