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theatre review

Maev Beaty as Sorrel and Emilio Vieira as Justin in Bunny, now playing at the Stratford Festival.David Hou

'Let me tell you about Sorrel," says Sorrel, the narrator/confessor at the centre of Hannah Moscovitch's new character study, Bunny.

Speaking in the third person, Sorrel, a professor of Victorian literature, does indeed go on tell us about herself – albeit almost entirely through a sexual lens. She's trying to justify or explain a climactic act of lust in a red canoe with a younger man named Angel that may make her a Canadian (according to Pierre Berton, anyway), but is an enormous betrayal of just everybody she cares about in her life.

Sorrel's story begins with her blossoming at the age of 17, the shy, dorky daughter of two Marxist academics suddenly, we're told, in the body of a supermodel. Her problem isn't the interest of teen boys, but the judgment of teen girls – who feel she's breaking the rules in her enthusiasm for kissing (and more) without being drunk and/or in love. (Moscovitch's writing is at its most wry and perceptive in these early scenes.)

After high school, we follow Sorrel to university, where she has an affair with a married professor (Cyrus Lane) and meets the businessman (Tim Campbell) she will marry to irritate her anti-capitalist parents. Then, after a disorienting jump in time, Sorrel takes us to the edge of her most transgressive sexual act.

Why is Sorrel giving us this nitty-gritty – reading aloud from her red canoe diaries?

As with the narrator/confessors of many of Moscovitch's plays, she has a strong sense of guilt that motivates the storytelling. She seems to want to make us complicit in her bad decision.

Indeed, while Bunny may be Moscovitch's Stratford Festival debut, it's a return to the dramatic structure of the works that made the playwright's name such as The Russian Play, East of Berlin and Little One – monologues that occasionally open up into scenes where other actors can jump in.

Unlike those earlier two- or three-handers, however, Moscovitch has a cast of seven to play with in Bunny – and while Sorrel's soliloquy gradually shortens, the scenes with other actors lengthen as we reach the final Chekhov-tinged scenes at a Canadian cottage.

Every new play should get as clear and assured a first production as director Sarah Garton Stanley's here. In a highly physical and very funny performance as Sorrel, Maev Beaty is the rebar that holds the somewhat unwieldy play together. She's confident and charming in her narration, panicky or compulsively passionate in the flashbacks.

The men in Sorrel's life come to life in short, sharp strokes hacked out by a parade of excellent actors. Emilio Vieira makes the stereotype of Sorrel's high school quarterback boyfriend feel genuine; Tim Campbell is a sinewy ball of stress as her eventual husband, Carol; and David Patrick Flemming is cockily alluring as the mysterious Angel.

Sorrel gets her nickname "Bunny" not from any of the men she furiously fornicates with (onstage more than once), but from her only female friend, Maggie – because of the terrified look she often has on her face in social situations.

Krystin Pellerin is wonderfully warm as this exceedingly accepting character – making her more than just a bike-riding manic pixie dream BFF. Unfortunately, it's not quite enough to entirely compensate for Moscovitch's underwriting of the relationship between the two main women, making the sudden emergence of it as the crucial one in the play at the end unconvincing.

Indeed, at just 90 minutes long, Bunny doesn't give us enough of a chance to live with any of secondary characters. The Moscovitch monologue-plus structure seems better suited for plays with fewer characters; here, a larger cast seems, in a way, squandered.

In contrast to some of Moscovitch's earlier plays, which lived in an edgy moment, Bunny does have a past-tense feel more like a novel than a drama. The stakes seem very low for the bulk of the play given we don't know what we're so angstily building toward – the long leap in time also one in logic.

It doesn't help justify that not only does Moscovitch not really want us to judge Bunny for her sexual transgressions, neither does any character onstage. The only true antagonist Bunny has is herself – perhaps born from spending formative years immersed in Victorian literature instead of with friends.

And yet Beaty creates a memorable main character worth spending time with merely for her observations on life, her quirks, the moments along the way. As Bunny's professor says at one point, "Maybe good lines are better than coherence."

Bunny continues at the Stratford Festival ( until Sept. 24.