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Onstage 8.24.05

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Happily resolving controversies

Shaw Festival's last 2005 additions are a lovable American modern classic and a downright weird new Canadian play, both of which bring controversial material to a happy ending.

Starting with the tawdry material of either a sociological study or a sex fantasy, William Inge's Bus Stop(1955) treats its troubled characters with such compassion and affection that each one is not only unforgettably alive but truly affecting. The play ends happily but leaves a sad understanding of its larger context.

The fascinating two starring roles are a boisterous 21-year-old cowboy who has just had his virgin sexual encounter with a beautiful nightclub entertainer, Cherie, and has abducted her to marry her and take her to the ranch he owns in Montana. Cherie, an innocent young girl in all matters except sex, is intimidated by Bo and wants to escape from him. Inge manages to make these unlikely stereotypes funny, decent, and believably real. So do the actors, lanky redhead Martin Happer and perky blonde Nicole Underhay.

Under the sure-handed direction of Shaw's AD Jackie Maxwell, whose brilliant 2001 staging of Inge's Picnic was ideal in all but the Court House Theatre's inadequate stage facilities, the Shaw ensemble's fine cast has a picnic with this Bus Stop. And on the Royal George Theatre's more appropriate stage it is picture-perfect with Sue LePage's realistic designs and Andrea Lundy's sensitive lighting, initially focusing on big blowing gusts of snow outside.

I wouldn't even try to summarize the bizarre plot of Ann-Marie MacDonald's Belle Moral: A Natural History, which deals with genetic and biological experiments, ghosts and phantoms, monsters and oddities, financial chicanery, Darwinian theories, and the aesthetics of Oscar Wilde in 1899 rural Scotland. Given that catalogue, would you?

The characters include a dead Bride, a scary Creature, and Claire (all Jessica Lowry); a mythical Jackal and big muscular hunk called Wee Farleigh (both Jeff Madden); Pearl MacIsaac, a fiercely intellectual young amateur scientist (Fiona Byrne); Flora MacIsaac, her nurturing older aunt (Donna Belleville); Victor MacIsaac, Pearl's and Claire's brother (Jeff Meadows); and an ancient, doddering servant called YoungFarleigh (Bernard Behrens). The antagonist and family doctor is Dr. Seamus Reid (Peter Millard). The family lawyer is Mr. Abbot (Graeme Somerville). They all play with absolute assurance and straight faces.

Victor suffers from gender confusion because of his hysteria, but is entertaining because of his preference for running about naked. Flora is frightened by her awful secrets and confusion about whether she's sexually attracted to Dr. Reid. Pearl refutes her asexual attitudes and virtually corrupts straight-laced Mr. Abbot. Wee Farleigh may be servicing Pearl also, or maybe Victor; I can't tell. I'm pleased to have kept them all straight --- or at least remained sure of which is actually which.

Claire turns out to be lovely except for a deformed appendage. Dark family secrets turn out to be awful only as they reflect bigoted notions of how to treat deformity. And everyone but Dr. Reid seems to have wound up in a happy family embrace. The overlong, talky ending, however, needs trimming.

Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario:Bus Stop to November 27; Belle Moral to October 7. Tix: $20 to $82 Canadian ($16.08 to $65.91 US) 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com


On the fringe

Fringe festivals offer the "what's next" in theater. They are like the fashion shows and film festivals of the stage. And Downstairs Cabaret Theatre seems to be behind another Fringe winner.

Thick, produced by Downstairs Cabaret Theatre and Blandino Productions, premiered at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, was put on at the 2004 Toronto SummerWorks Festival, and was at DCT in September 2004. And now it's at the NYC Fringe Festival --- but back here in town for two shows.

Thick is a dark comedy, written by Rick Bland, who also stars. It tells the story of sweet, thick Rudolph, who doesn't know he's different, and his journey home for his mother's funeral.

See it Wednesday and Thursday, August 24 and 25, at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, 172 West Main Street, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $21. (www.downstairscabaret.com, 325-4370) Or, travel to the center of the Fringe itself, and see it in New York City Friday, August 26, through Sunday, August 28, along with your choice of 1,300 other performances. Find information at www.fringeNYC.org or 888-FringeNYC

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