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And Slowly Beauty: Magical play unfolds like a beautiful dance

Celine Stubel and Thomas Olajide in And Slowly Beauty...

David Cooper / The Belfry Theatre Victoria

4 out of 4 stars

With the first English production of Michel Nadeau's well-made play And Slowly Beauty ..., director Michael Shamata marshals all the elements of live theatre to create the magic alluded to in a tale of how art can change your life.

The show, a co-production of Ottawa's National Arts Centre and the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C., is everything theatre should be. The play is incredibly complex and multilayered, yet we are never lost.

The genius is in its structure which features one actor, the brilliant Dennis Fitzgerald as central character Mr. Mann, in every minute of this roughly two- hour show, while five other actors (from NAC's English Theatre Company) depict multiple characters swirling around him.

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"A man goes to work," says Mr. Mann, donning his three-piece grey suit in the opening scene. Work is a desk job at a social-services agency where Mr. Mann has been placed in charge of "restructuring the restructuring." After winning two tickets in an office raffle, he goes to see Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters. We watch snippets from the Russian classic as Mr. Mann watches a lit stage within the glass chamber of the production's ingenious set.

Henceforth, the boredom and frustration Mr. Mann feels is viewed through the lens of Chekhov's sisters and their guests, especially Baron Tuzenbach, with his presentiments of a better life to come, and his insistence that one must have a dream. The Chekhov characters also wander in and out of the action in the larger play, as if they were a running commentary from Mr. Mann's memory of the show.

And Slowly Beauty ..., translated by Maureen Labonté, unfolds like a dance, with the actors' movements choreographed, and beautiful phrases repeated. "Change is never easy," Mr. Mann informs his staff in an early scene of some hilarity. All of the actors he addresses have their backs to us and each responds in a different chirping or growling gibberish.

As the story progresses, Mr. Mann and his middle-class family engage in Chekhovian discussions. Meanwhile at the office, Mr. Mann begins to feel trapped. It dawns on him that maybe steady work (see Chekhov) is not the answer to a full life.

The constant shifting of scenes and characters – many of them in Mr. Mann's mental landscape – transports us from late 19th-century Russia to a street corner or a café in a Canadian city that strongly resembles Ottawa. For Moscow, substitute Montreal.

The extraordinary Caroline Gillis, long-time collaborator of actor/playwright Daniel MacIvor, plays Mr. Mann's wife Claudette, but also the Chekhov sister Olga and a street person hawking a paper about life on the street. Celine Stubel does duty as daughter Nadine, but also the Chekhov sister Irina and an artist who asks Mr. Mann to be part of her installation. A talented newcomer, Thomas Olajide, is son Quentin, but also Tuzenbach and a doctor at the hospital where Mr. Mann visits a dying colleague. Christian Murray depicts a deranged street person, the dying colleague Sylvain and a Russian officer from The Three Sisters. Mary-Colin Chisholm is riveting as Anita, a friendly waitress, who stars in Mr. Mann's fantasies of love, and is also the sister Masha.

Designer John Ferguson's set, a glass-walled structure surrounding three Chekhovian birch trees, is a magic lantern. A corridor serves as the interior of a bus or the passage through death.

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Victoria composer Brooke Maxwell ( Ride the Cyclone) has written a haunting score, punctuated with echoing choral passages.

And Slowly Beauty is no simple kitchen-sink drama. There is much laughter in unexpected places and some deftly directed movements that quicken the interplay of action and ideas. Like Mr. Mann at the theatre, "we were transported."

And Slowly Beauty ...

  • Written by Michel Nadeau
  • Translated by Maureen Labonté
  • Directed by Michael Shamata
  • Starring Dennis Fitzgerald, Caroline Gillis
  • At the Belfry Theatre in Victoria

And Slowly Beauty ... runs in Victoria until Oct. 23. The production plays Ottawa's National Arts Centre from Nov. 7 to 19.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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