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The play Bears by Matthew MacKenzie features Sheldon Elter. The chorus behind him, from left to right, Lara Ebata, Zoe Glassman, Skye Demas, Alida Kendell, Gianna Vacirca, Kendra Shorter and Rebecca Sadowski.

Alexis McKeown/The Globe and Mail

3 out of 4 stars

Sex with bears – a part of Canada's literary heritage.

First, of course, there was Marian Engel's singular novel Bear, the controversial winner of a Governor-General's Literary Award in 1976 that recently became famous anew when the racy cover of its paperback edition was turned into an internet meme.

Now, there's Alberta playwright Matthew MacKenzie's Bears – plural – a short story of sorts, about a man on the lam in the Western Canadian wilderness, transformed into a highly entertaining evening at the theatre thanks to MacKenzie's clever direction and Monica Dottor's ingenious choreography.

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Dottor turns a chorus of eight female dancers into the flora and fauna of Alberta and British Columbia – including a sleuth of grizzlies swatting salmon out of a river. She even poetically conjures coitus ursus at one point.

But there's more to Bears than a bit of oddly beautiful bestiality.

MacKenzie's play follows an Indigenous oil patch worker named Floyd (Sheldon Elter) as he flees after what he calls a "workplace accident." The RCMP are after him, as are Kinder Morgan's private police and bounty hunters, so it's clear there's more to it than he's telling us.

Floyd narrates his journey in the third person as he makes his way from Edmonton ("the city of former champions," he calls it) to Jasper, then over the Rockies and down the Fraser River toward the Pacific Ocean.

In addition to multiple near-misses with the Mounties, he survives an avalanche, an industrial spill and a whirlpool with the help of animal friends that include chickadees, an otter and a very nervy butterfly.

The eight dancers conjure all of this in a witty, rather than literal, manner, swirling around Floyd in glow-in-the-dark costumes and across a set that brings to mind a 1990s rave as much as the great outdoors.

That Elter can remember and speak his dense monologue amid all the dancing and house-music interludes is impressive. But the actor, best known for his own solo show, Métis Mutt, also has the moves when needed – he's a brick of an actor who's surprisingly supple.

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Floyd's late, lamented mother (Christine Sokaymoh Frederick) watches from the sidelines and occasionally interjects with a line or two in a semi-successful attempt by MacKenzie to add emotion to the play.

More genuinely, if mysteriously, moving is the brief man-animal romance at the climax of the play, when one dancer (Gianna Vacirca) emerges from the chorus to become a grizzly – the wild beast that Floyd wishes he were. The two engage in a funny and touching pas de deux.

MacKenzie's often-funny script is loving when it comes to the nature in his part of the world and documents how tailing ponds, oil spills and climate change are altering it. It's environmental agitprop, for sure: The flora and fauna are the good guys; Kinder Morgan and the RCMP are the bad guys. It implores the audience to "fight" in its penultimate line, but it didn't leave me with much of an idea of how to do so.

The final line of the play, incidentally, is the title, shouted: "BEARS!" I adored this and hope more plays will consider ending with the cast shouting out the title.

"HAMLET!"

"DEATH OF A SALESMAN!"

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"SALT-WATER MOON!"

Bears is co-produced by two companies from Alberta – Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre – and the large-ensemble production is funded by one of the Canada Council's Next Chapter grants. From Toronto, the show makes its own trek westward, hitting Edmonton, Canmore, Saddle Lake First Nation, Maskwaciis and Calgary in Alberta, before crossing the Rockies for a run in Vancouver.

Catch it, if you can.

Bears continues at The Theatre Centre to Jan. 27. Tour dates at punctuatetheatre.com

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the dancer who plays the grizzly is Rebecca Sadowski. In fact, she is Gianna Vacirca.

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