JWR Articles: Live Event - Belle Moral: A Natural History (Director: Alisa Palmer) - August 22, 2008
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Belle Moral: A Natural History

3.5 3.5

A version of this review appeared in the August 7-13, 2008 edition of Pulse Niagara
The "evolution" of mankind

Remounting Ann-Marie MacDonald’s vivid dissection of the age-old struggle between science and art, like a fine Niagara wine, reveals more flavour, depth and verbal subtleties than from its initial tasting. Most of the 2005 cast and crew are back to rekindle director Alisa Palmer’s original vision.

Choosing a country estate near Edinburgh at the turn of the twentieth century as the place and time provides MacDonald with the ideal moment to let the debate of how we treat the “different” amongst us be seen through varying eyes. Intriguingly, the play’s pivotal prop is a specimen-jar, containing a solitary ear that appears to be a human-canine hybrid and sports bits of red hair.

The colour is instructive: nearly all of Belle Moral’s inhabitants—dead or alive—are bona fide carrot tops adding visual interest every time a MacIsaac (or one of their admirers) sets foot in the manor’s drawing room.

At the centre of it all is Pearl MacIsaac (Fiona Byrne, once again makes a convincing transition from narrow-minded egghead to worldly humanist). Her father has recently died, throwing the household into an unsettled state. Everyone’s on edge, awaiting the imminent arrival of the wayward heir, and Pearl’s younger brother, Victor (sporting the best-known buttocks of the entire company, Jeff Meadows reprises the far-reaching role as if the show had never stopped; his conflicting love-of-life—all the while failing to make a man of himself in his father’s eyes—is more courageous and convincing than ever). For, without the Oscar Wilde devotee present, the will can’t be read and the expected transfer of the family name and assets to the only male must be put off.

Trying to keep watch over her late-brother’s children is Aunt Flora (for this performance, Donna Belleville seemed a microsecond off her usually wonderfully droll comedic timing, eliciting chuckles where belly laughs erupted three years back). The contented spinster has seen much life and death over the years and has attempted to act as a surrogate parent due to mother MacIsaac’s sudden passing just as Victor was born. She knows where all of the bodies are buried and spends countless hours wrestling with the morality of keeping dark family secrets to herself.

Belle Moral has on its staff two of the Farleigh clan to fetch, carry and pose (Pearl is an avid photographer) as ordered. Young Farleigh—once again perfectly framed by Bernard Behrens whose every appearance delights the crowd—is older than dirt but, like the mysterious family portrait lurking above the mantelpiece, will keep his position until he ushers himself into the grave. Wee Farleigh also belies his moniker: with chiseled muscles very much in evidence and an encyclopedic knowledge of culinary descriptions that make even a simple bun seem to be a delicacy fit for royalty. Martin Happer aces the part. The engaging servants provide welcome respite from some of Pearl’s wordy, scientific/social discourses, effectively balancing the script.

Dr. Seamus Reid (Peter Hutt, new to the role, hasn’t yet found the key to the rhythm and pulse of his colleagues, adding the occasional false note to their ebb and flow) represents unwavering rationalists. A great friend of the late master, he’s not above playing Frankenstein to the freak of nature that apparently haunts the castle and the dreams of its kin. The ever-so-impressed-with-himself physician is quick to diagnose the perpetually distraught Victor with a severe case of hysteria, and even quicker to brandish his syringe when the “naturally-effeminate” young man (males don’t suffer from hysteria …) collapses gasping for breath, even as his childhood wishes appear to come true.

The other professional advisor comes in the personage of legal beagle Mr. Abbott (a marvel of less-is-more speech and discreet body language from Graeme Somerville). Also fatherless, the wily lawyer puts Dr. Reid in his place and pines unabashedly for the new mistress of the estate. (In a cruel twist of fate, the elder MacIsaac disowns his son, but adds the condition of perpetual bareness to Pearl’s control of the family fortune—even from the grave the old man wields his power.)

With the entire cast doing their able best to sound (Sarah Shippobotham, dialect coach) and look (Judith Bowden’s sets stand the test of time; the costumes are at one with the period) like Scots, the key word “evolution” comes to the ear as “evilution.” Those who see themselves as the most educated and worthy dismiss weakness in others (frequently taking advantage of same). They are anxious to do whatever it takes to create superior beings and rid the planet of those who don’t pass their standards.

More than ever before (start in Africa and move around the planet from there), MacDonald’s message resonates all too believably. A visit to this Scottish countryside is highly recommended. JWR

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Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Playwrights Canada Press Royal LePage - Niagara Real Estate Centre; Maria DePalma, Sales Representative Shaw Festival
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