The Belle of Winnipeg: The Keystone Ensemble

by Ryan Oakley

belle of winnipeg

The Belle of Winnipeg, playing at the Winchester Street Theatre, fulfilled a long-time wish of mine: Actors were silent. Throughout the entire play, not a single actor said a single word.

This wasn’t done in the spirit of some German art-house, where they moped about the stage, sadly reflecting on the meaninglessness of life, but in the style of a silent movie. Set to live piano music and using film projection, the play tells the story of a bride in 1882 who, without prospects, runs away to Winnipeg and finds herself in a bordello. Those who have read enough history to know the likely fate of such a woman will be surprised to learn that hilarity, rather than horror, ensues.

Or is supposed to.

Like a coal powered train, The Belle of Winnipeg takes a while to gather steam. The first few scenes felt hammy and I could not even crack a smile. Comedy is impervious to criticism. Either you’re laughing or you’re not. I wasn’t. Neither was the bulk of the audience.

Two hours seemed like a long haul for a gimmick that wore thin within five minutes. I looked at the actors, their faces painted white, their clothes two-toned in black and white, moving around without words and thought: Is this going to be a two hour mime show? If so, where did I put my cyanide?

As it turns out, I’d left my cyanide capsule in my other jacket but I’m grateful for the mix-up. As the play went on, it got better. Or, maybe, I just got used to the style of the thing. The acting no longer seemed so hammy, or the jokes quite so bad. The piano playing, which is the true star of the show, was actually funny. The first barroom scene drew me in and turned my opinion around.

I actually found myself looking forward to the second act.

Sadly, the second act was delayed by a technical problem.

The play often suffered from a similar type of delay; one that did not bring it to a complete stop, but needlessly slowed the story. The play too often recycles its jokes. (The funny face after drinking booze is only funny the first ten times. After that, you need to do something new with it.) It also pauses to show off the physical acting of its cast.]

While the cast is able, they’re no Fatty Arbuckles. The Belle of Winnipeg lacks a standout performer who can take a simple prop and find enough magic to perform a physical soliloquy with it. But that doesn’t stop it from trying. It should stop from trying. While this play has made great strides in stopping actors from talking, it still has them moving too much.

All of these actors are at their best when they show off the least, when they move the story forward rather than stopping it to perform hi-jinx. When they perform alone, miming actions for long periods, they slow the pace of the play. Sometimes to a stop.

Not so, when they perform together. These scenes, such as the barroom brawl or the dream sequence in the second act, are great. The slapstick is funny and video projection is used to wonderful effect.  Even when they act only in pairs, these actors are very good.

Each one of them does a good job with their character and each provides their share of laughs.  Ginette Mohr as Belle gets the bulk of these but I was particularly impressed by Phil Rickaby as Gormless Joe and Scott McCulloch as the chilly-creepy Dr. Black.  Both of these master the small movements.  They establish their characters and get their results with little mannerisms and gestures.

The music provided by the piano man, David Atkinson, is easily the best thing about The Belle of Winnipeg. His live score, sometimes original, sometimes lifted from the most unlikely but apt sources, provides emotion, dialogue and humour. He creates sound effects, audio jokes and gives a performance worthy of the standing ovation he received at the play’s end.

The rest of it was okay. You’ll be smiling through a lot of it and laughing at a bit of it.  I’d recommend this to any fan of silent movies. For everyone else, I’m sure that at twenty two dollars a ticket, you  could find worse things to spend your entertainment money on.  I’m not sure that you could find better. Toronto is an expensive city.


The Belle of Winnipeg is playing at the Winchester Street Theatre (80 Winchester Street) Nov 04, 8pm Preview Nov 05-07, 8pm, Nov. 11-14, 8pm, Sun Nov 08 & 15, 2:00 pm.

–Tickets can be purchased online.

–Tickets cost $22 /$17.50 (students/seniors, ACTRA, EQUITY,  the Unemployed &Railway Workers)  The 2:00 pm shows on Nov 08 and 15 are pay what you can.