Randi Helmers (left), Dan Weisenburger, Ajineen Sagal, James Fagan Tait, Anton Lipovetsky, John Millard, Peter Anderson, Christopher Hunt, Rob Clutton, and Onalea Gilbertson rehearse for Caravan Farm Theatre’s The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw, running July 25 to Aug. 27. (Parker Crook/Morning Star)

Bluegrass reworking of Faustian classic

Caravan Farm Theatre classic The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw returns to the farm July 25 to Aug. 27

“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.”

At the height of the Great Depression, blues legend Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil, selling his soul to become the king of Delta blues. Regardless of its truth, it’s a classic Faustian tale that has encompassed discussion of the musician’s life. With its roots in German legend, the many stories of Faust have grown in popular culture, notably Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and, more recently, Caravan Farm Theatre’s The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw.

Written by Peter Anderson and scored by John Millard, The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw is a Caravan Farm Theatre classic, and it’s returning to the farm July 25 to Aug. 27.

“Peter had been listening to a lot of old blues, Robert Johnson, stuff like that, and around that blues artist was the story of the crossroads where he sells his soul,” Millard said. “And I had been working on a production of Urfaust, which is the first draft of Faust that Goethe wrote before Faust, so it was kind of serendipitous.”

The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw is a bluegrass opera that follows title character Weedy, who sells his soul for banjo prowess.

“It started 19 years ago looking for a project that would bring together John Millard and Peter Anderson,” said Caravan Farm Theatre artistic director Estelle Shook. “It was plunking together the idea of music — and in particular something to do with a banjo, and something bluegrassy-tinged because of the banjo — and for some reason the story of Faust. It just felt like a really great, universal germ of an idea, and they just took it from there and it became its very own thing.”

Faustian tales follow a traditional formula, where the protagonist trades their essence for whatever they crave. In turn, the devil grants them a designated amount of time to enjoy the fruits of their agreement. In some cases, such as deals made in the TV series Supernatural, the person making the deal gets 10 years. In Urfaust, it all happens in one night. Weedy, however, gets one year and one day.

“It’s more like a weird, nightmarish day, because they start to close down the whole deal and try to extract the soul before the year and a day are up,” Shook said.

As the protagonists in Faustian myths all must, however, Weedy eventually must face the devil.

“And when it’s time to pay up, he doesn’t want to, like Faust never does — nobody ever wants to give up their soul in those stories,” Millard said. “There’s usually some game involved — it’s either a duel with the devil, or it’s a game.”

In The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw, Anton Lipovetsky as Weedy takes on Millard as the devil in head-to-head banjo duelling action.

“They kind of shout the devil down in this one,” Millard said. “He can’t play the devil down, but the community rallies and helps him shout the devil down.”

The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw, with the help of Millard’s score, is a blend of comedy and pathos, Shook said.

“The music helps it be profoundly emotional and stirring,” she said. “It is incredibly funny throughout, but then it’s punctuated by really deep, stirring moments.”

However, it can’t be called a comedy, Millard said.

“Not in a pejorative way, but it’s almost melodramatic in the best way possible, in the true definition.”

Leading up to the performance, the crew has been hard at work building the stage, making the costumes, and bringing the production together on the idyllic farm setting.

While The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw has only 10 actors on stage, the entire cast and crew is upwards of 70 people, Shook said, with work starting months in advance. But because it’s a classic Caravan performance, they are able to focus efforts on fine-tuning their production.

“The great thing is we know that we’ve done it before, but what all that does is allows us to go deeper and get more complexity and more detail, because you don’t have to spend time on the rough sketch.”

While the performance follows the Faustian skeleton, Caravan’s rendition is a unique perspective on the age-old tale.

“That’s something I always loved as an audience member,” said Caravan Farm Theatre communications director Lisa Mori. “Even if I know a story or think I do, seeing what Caravan does with it is really fun. I go because I do want to see what will happen with this story I know out here.”

The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw returns to Caravan Farm Theatre July 25 to Aug. 27. Shows at 7:30 p.m., gates at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for youth 18 and under on preview nights, July 25 and 26. Early Bird performances July 28, 29, 30 and Aug. 2, 3, and 4: youth $15, adults $35, with a 30 per cent discount for groups of 6 or more for early bird performances. Regular shows Aug. 5-27: youth $15, adult $35. Pay-what-you-can Aug. 1, 8, 15, and 22: no reservations, first-come, first-served. Children 3 and under no charge. Tickets are available from the Ticket Seller, www.ticketseller.ca, 250-549-7469.

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