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The Coronation Voyage Written by Michel Marc Bouchard Directed by Jackie Maxwell Starring Jim Mezon, Donna Belleville, Dylan Trowbridge and Jeff Lillico Rating: ***

If you want a sign from the Shaw Festival's new artistic director about her intentions for the place, take a look at Jackie Maxwell's decision to mount The Coronation Voyage on her main stage. In the bucolic Loyalist setting of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Shaw Festival is an institution dedicated to the plays of a long-dead British writer and his European and American contemporaries. Not only is The Coronation Voyage a recent Canadian play, it is also a masterful statement from Quebec dramatist Michel Marc Bouchard about the painful need to shrug off the colonial relationship.

In 2000, the festival expanded its mandate to include not only plays written during George Bernard Shaw's lifetime (1856-1950) but also more recent scripts set during that period: The Coronation Voyage, which first appeared in French in 1995, sort of squeaks in. It is set in 1953, among the Québécois passengers on an ocean liner who are headed to London for Queen Elizabeth II's enthronement, and also makes repeated references to events in 1942, when an ill-conceived British plan for a landing at Dieppe left hundreds of Canadian soldiers fatally exposed to the German guns.

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It's a grandly symbolic play, featuring two parents -- one a crime boss who has ratted on his comrades; the other the embittered wife of a federal cabinet minister -- who have both been forced to sacrifice their children, one to save his own skin, the other in the name of the Empire. Like Bouchard's previous work, which includes Lilies and The Orphan Muses, it's a script that rejoices in an oversized theatricality that can both entice and defeat English-Canadian directors schooled in quieter and more naturalistic styles.

Thankfully, Maxwell understands the play's ambition and knows what's required to pull it off: The script benefits greatly from the large-scale staging that is possible in the Shaw's Festival Theatre, where this production opened Saturday. Ken MacDonald's set sketches in the iconic image of the grand ocean liner, while lighting designer Alan Brodie fills its portholes with either an icy blue or a blood red. Similarly, William Schmuck's costumes provide the broad lines of the period without getting bogged down in detail. Then, composer Allen Cole provides a few delicate notes to underscore tension in key scenes. Visually, physically and technically, this bold production does justice to a wonderful script.

Sadly, however, Maxwell's cast cannot always follow her lead. Of course, we can count on Jim Mezon for power and menace in the role of the Chief, the Mafioso fleeing Montreal for a new identity in England. As his younger son Sandro, the eager and not-altogether-innocent 13-year-old just discovering the wicked ways of the world, Jeff Lillico is sweetly chirpy and convincingly adolescent.

As the Diplomat who holds their new British passports and proposes a particularly ugly bargain in exchange, Peter Krantz creates a blandly debonair façade, rather than suggesting either deceptive affability or outright malevolence. It's an interesting approach and occasionally it does score a chilling little point about the banality of evil, but often it just makes this key figure seem surprisingly blank. On the other hand, in the role of the Biographer, the narrator-like figure who keeps offering sanitized or triumphant versions of the Chief's life, George Dawson brings a puzzling degree of snideness to the part, driving this ironic device toward an intrusive sarcasm.

Dylan Trowbridge struggles to bring the right weight to the bitter anger of the Chief's older son Etienne, a concert pianist who was going to play for the Queen until his father's enemies crushed his fingers, but the actor doesn't entirely capture the force of the young man's sarcasm and occasionally he slips into hysteria. Similarly, as his replacement Marguerite, the young woman who now desperately needs him to share the secrets of Chopin, Susie Burnett fits awkwardly into the role of his potential comforter and interpreter. Both her attempts to preach forgiveness and his rude awakening to the dangers of such a philosophy are too emotionally cursory to ring true.

Marguerite is the daughter of Minister Gendron (David Schurmann) and his wife Alice, who are also the parents of three sons, two killed at Dieppe and the other permanently disabled by his wounds. In the role of Alice, Donna Belleville reprises the fine work she did when this play, much rewritten by Bouchard and then translated by Linda Gaboriau, made its English-language premiere at the Alberta Theatre Projects playRites festival in Calgary three years ago. Despite being plagued by a wig that looks like someone slapped a cinnamon Danish on her head, Belleville returns triumphantly with the cutting wit and fabulous bitterness of the colonial parent who has lost her offspring to an ungrateful and distant mother country. It's a testament to the emotional heights this production does achieve that Belleville's virtuoso speech about Alice's grievances no longer sticks out like a sore thumb, but seems part and parcel of Bouchard's grand vision.

As her long-suffering and ever-politic husband, Schurmann can only produce some kind of generic British civil servant. The Gendrons are the most three-dimensional of Bouchard's characters and, to those who know Canadian politics, the minister is an easily recognizable figure, the affable Quebec federalist who has perhaps made one genial compromise too many to earn a voice in Ottawa. It's no particular surprise that after years of playing pukka sahibs, country squires and decent chaps, Schurmann is unacquainted with this Canadian type.

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Maxwell, on the other hand, knows that it is time not only for Sandro and Etienne, but also for the Shaw Festival to grow up.

To Nov. 1 at the Shaw Festival's Festival Theatre. 1-800-511-7429

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