In her author’s notes playwright and novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald calls herself “essentially a comedian” and goes on to explain that this means she’s “an informed, jaded, jaundiced optimist” who believes that “all stories are happy because as long as there are stories there is hope.” The story of Belle Moral: A Natural History, currently running at the Shaw Festival, is a very queer, hopeful one from a very queer historical period.
On the threshold of world-changing scientific discoveries, the mid- to late-19th century had citizens struggling with notions of evolution as they walked along city streets on two legs, rather than the four they had been predestined to spend earlier incarnations mincing upon. God was all mixed up with science and artists were blurring the lines between the natural and the artificial. Oscar Wilde was in his prime and his plays were making a lucrative laughing stock of polite society.
Belle Moral, which first premiered in 2005 as a reworking of an earlier effort, is another in a series of critically acclaimed texts by the lesbian Canadian playwright. Goodnight Desdemona Good Morning Juliet which premiered in 1988 gave us the opportunity to see some of Shakespeare’s characters exploring their sexuality, with women at the forefront. Belle Moral carries the torch onward as a “lady” scientist and her “hysterical” feminized brother challenge the social and scientific structures of late 19th-century culture.
The Shaw remount of Mac-Donald’s seriocomic treatment of Scottish dress, folklore and customs is supported beautifully by Judith Bowden’s spectacular sets and costumes. The small Courthouse stage is crafted into a multi-purpose setting with rotating walls adorned by landscape murals reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist tendencies of The Group of Seven. Illusion lurks in every corner of the set; costumes utilize kilts, dressing gowns and bowler hats replete with antlers to magnificent effect. There’s even a stuffed puppy who follows its master with the aid of actress Julie Martell, whose amusing and skillful task it is to carry doggy’s head from place to place at the script’s every canine whim.
The cast, led by Fiona Byrne reprising her role as scientist Pearl MacIssaac and again directed by Alisa Palmer, creates an incredibly powerful ensemble, each performer presenting memorable characters populating this gripping and vastly entertaining drama-cum-comedy-cum fantastical morality tale on the nature of art and science as they collide head on. Byrne’s performance is flawless and measured as she creates the perfect contrast for Jeff Meadows’ hysterical Peter MacIsaac. Meadows brings the passionate, “morbidly effeminate” and lovable artist/brother/gigolo onstage with finesse and great comic pathos. Donna Belleville as Flora MacIsaac and Peter Hutt as Dr Seamus Reid provide powerful and moving representations of science, religion, romance and superstition. There are beautiful redheads everywhere as they morph from provincial solicitor or confined lunatic to hunky, kilted, beast-like creature and queer-eared fairy monster.
Belle Moral is a very queer fairy tale with a very queer ending, breathing new life into the timeworn notion of “family portrait” while all along titillating with superb visual effects and physical presence. In every sense of the word, this is an extremely attractive production — and there’s a hairy-assed, orange-hued muscleman in the final scene!