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Dispatches from Canada

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I missed parts one and two of Peter Hinton's The Swanne and just now caught the finale of this ambitious new Canadian trilogy, The Swanne: Queen Victoria (The Seduction of Nemesis). The title may suggest some of its problems. The play is a too-elaborate historical fantasy in which the young Queen Victoria writes a work of fiction. Her story imagines more than one illegitimate heir to the throne and follows their adventures through prisons and madhouses and political riots while her own mother and household and court are full of intrigue attempting to mold or control or eliminate her as future queen.

We get ham actresses, drunks, and plenty of crooks and prostitutes, a black boy who may be an offspring of royalty and is the lover of a white boy who may even be an heir to the throne of England, or maybe a bastard son of a scoundrel, and singing and dancing and lightning-fast switches from ugly rabble in the streets to aristocratic drawing rooms. And when all this unravels, the ending is at least 40 minutes of nothing but endings.

You'd think that a final dance would end it, but then we meet a whole new character who sits down and makes a 10-minute speech. Then we reunite or kill off or explain a slew of characters. Then we get a romantic kiss when the black and white boys meet on a boat headed for the New World. And we hear a lot about what's going to be in Canada. That's what it's all about.

The other new Canadian play is blessedly neither pretentious nor even long. So we begin the evening with a jewel of a bonus, Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice. I was impressed to see Lally Cadeau in a virtual walk-on playing the Bastard's mother in the all-star King John,but Cocteau's mini-masterpiece monologue is more worthy of that exquisite actress.

It's just a woman posing, pretending, pleading, and promising on the telephone with the lover who has broken up with her. She has no melodramatic action or excessive expression. She doesn't leave her bedroom. She just talks on the phone. And the piece is revealing, rewarding, and challenging enough to have drawn such actresses as Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman to attempt it. Cadeau is mesmerizing and lovely in it.

Set up by that gem, we move on in the intimate Studio Theatre to Nicolas Billon's The Elephant Song. Initially, this clever one-acter seems formulaic in its game-playing, as a psychiatrist/chief of institution interrogates a mental patient who was the last person to see his missing analyst. The young man is too bright and playful and wants to talk about elephants, not the missing doctor.

We learn that his mother is an opera singer and has never loved him. A woman who assists the missing doctor seems concerned about him but may be merely controlling or antagonistic. And the device of Dr. Greenberg's not having looked at the boy's folder before interviewing him will become startlingly important without ever being entirely natural-seeming.

It's like a finger exercise that has a seductive melody. In fact, in this case the melody is the popular "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi, which the mother shows up in full concert drag to sing onstage. But the characters get more interesting and winning as they go, the surprise ending is rather endearingly juvenile in its melodrama, and the whole experience is rather pleasing if transitory, like the Cocteau vignette.

It wouldn't work, of course, unless perfectly paced and played. Stephen Ouimette is so understated and real as Dr. Greenberg it's hard to see how skillfully he is working. Maria Vacratsis is misleadingly abrasive, then motherly as Miss Peterson, the nurse. And a new young actor, Mac Fyfe, is charismatic and absolutely convincing as the brilliant, disturbed young man. Barbara Dunn-Prosser looks beautiful and sings beautifully for her walk-on aria.

Stratford Festival,Stratford, Ontario: The Swanne: Queen Victoria (The Seduction of Nemesis) at the Studio Theatre through September 26; The Human Voice with The Elephant Song,at the Studio Theatre through September 26. Tix: $23.65 to $100.48 ($18.19 to $77.29 US). 800-567-1600, www.stratfordfestival.ca

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