Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Belle Moral: A Natural History - The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men Gang aft agley

Peter Hutt
Belle Moral: A Natural History - Peter Hutt

David Lynch's disquieting 1986 movie, Blue Velvet , opens with a camera pan across an attractive neighbourhood replete with manicured lawns and picket fence, but the viewer is soon confronted with a close-up of a severed ear, inert on the ground, leading one to venture that this idyllic community is not quite what it seems. Lynch packages good and evil in one fell cinematic swoop.

Playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald , in Belle Moral: A Natural History, attempts to replicate the scenario with her own severed ear preserved inside a jar of formaldehyde, this one apparently obtained from an idiot and on loan to Pearl MacIsaac (Fiona Byrne) for scientific studies, courtesy of a much older and pining suitor, Dr. Seamus Reid (Peter Hutt). The deformed ear sits on Pearl's desk for most of the play, specially lit to remind one that in the course of natural history and that contentious theory of evolution, nature enjoys a peculiar if not morbid way of introducing progeny that are often twisted and out of synch, always fascinating to a science nerd such as Pearl because of the abnormality, but also problematic when it comes to what actually to do with these creatures. Do we place them safely inside a circus and sell the travelling spectacle to thrilled viewers or do we hide them in psychic closets, uncaring mental health institutions such as that portrayed in Milos Forman's 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Jack Nicholson in his prime?

From the Shaw Festival program, always an educational treat, we learn that MacDonald derived this play from her earlier drama, The Arab's Mouth, first produced in 1990 by Toronto's Factory Theatre and then Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell. MacDonald is the award-winning author of the humorous play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), and two amazing novels: The Way the Crow Flies and Fall on Your Knees, all kinky yet terrific with MacDonald exercising laser wit amidst trials and tribulations of biblical proportion. In the Author's Note, she says that she tried to write a drama in hopes of it playing at Shaw. Therein is the rub. The play actually out-Shaw's George Bernard himself. We get many witty remarks that spark a laugh, but like George Bernard, MacDonald often employs far too much didactic dialogue, actual monologues (wherein the other actors must labour to appear engaged) directed at the viewer, forcing Byrne and Hutt to work hard to keep the ship afloat. The Shaw cast is always up to the task; Donna Belleville as Flora MacIssac is particularly adept and Jeff Meadows (Victor MacIssac) is effective with a peculiar role akin to that which he portrayed in The President, but even pros reveal uneasiness of focus with lapses in the Scottish dialect.

"A chromosome crosses or a segment snaps, in the egg or the sperm, and all sorts of people result," says Annie Dillard in For The Time Being, reflecting on nature's aberrations. It doesn't take the viewer long to figure out that the MacIssacs harbour one of nature's (Dare we say mistakes?) in the attic, despite airy-fairy inclusion of banshees, Anubis, a jackal-headed god associated with mummification and the afterlife in Egyptian mythology as well as other tricks such as a riff on a family portrait to point out that what we see depends on how we look - all in order to distract us and thereby enhance the mystery engendered by a foggy Scottish coast near Edinburgh and an ancestral home called Belle Moral, a clever play on words by MacDonald.

Judith Bowden's design of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Scottish Manor is craftily rendered as is Kevin Lamotte's mastery of light and dark but we tire of stag horns imbedded everywhere. Composer/pianist Paul Sportelli, as usual, provides appropriate (in this case eerie) music which yes, includes the bagpipes and Meadows gets an easy laugh explaining that he wears a kilt to aerate his privates.

The final scene featuring a picture of one big happy dysfunctional ( and deformed) family is worthy of an SLN skit and a bit hard to take. I get it, but shared Hutt's theatrical disgust, hoping that they indeed represented an "evolutionary cul-de-sac."

Belle Moral: A Natural History is at the Court House Theatre in Niagara on the Lake from July 12 to October 5. The crowd was sparse when I attended. Bringing this play back so soon again from 2005 will cause some to second guess, but the theme of women advancing in the world by brain power despite widespread male ignorance and bliss is in keeping with the overall playbill. If hesitating to attend, Martin Harper's (Wee Farleigh) abs alone are worth the price of admission. And watch Meadows consistent fumbling with his kilt to remain decorous while laid out on the couch which could have been turned into good comedy.

Director: Alisa Palmer, Original music: Paul Sportelli, Cast: Fiona Byrne, Jeff Meadows, Peter Millard, Donna Belleville, Jessica Lowry, Jeff Madden, Bernhard Behrens, Graeme Somerville, Production Designer: Judith Bowden, Lighting Designer: Kevin Lamotte.

Fiona Byrne   Jeff Meadows   Judith Bowden   Martin Happer   Paul Sportelli

Donna Belleville
Donna Belleville

Belle Moral: A Natural History

CBC's Canada Reads presents: Q&A with Ann-Marie McDonald

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