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Adrian Chamberlain's Stage Left: Crimes of the Heart, Neva

There’s good fun afoot at the Phoenix Theatre if attempted murder, faulty ovaries and psychiatric wards are your cup of lemonade. Today, the University of Victoria’s theatre department completes its run of Crimes of the Heart.
Doc Porter and Lenny Magrath (Sheldon Graham and Sophie Chappell) share a moment as Doc shows her how his baby girl likes to grab his thumb, in the Pulitizer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart, which wraps up its run at the Phoenix Theatre at UVic today.

There’s good fun afoot at the Phoenix Theatre if attempted murder, faulty ovaries and psychiatric wards are your cup of lemonade.

Today, the University of Victoria’s theatre department completes its run of Crimes of the Heart. The southern gothic tale was playwright Beth Henley’s first play. She scored a home run with her black comedy, winning the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

This well-rehearsed UVic production is smartly directed by Peter McGuire, who favours clear, well-defined strokes. A student cast does a fine job with a challenging script. Lucy Sharples plays Babe, a pleasant, addled young woman who shot her husband in the stomach because she was fed up with him. A well-cast Sophie Chappell portrays Lenny, an anxious 30-year-old who believes her shrunken ovary ruined her romantic prospects.

The third of the three sisters is Meg (Sarah Jean Valiquette) whose Hollywood singing career was derailed by a nervous breakdown.

Henley aims to find humour and humanity in the grotesque — she would argue this is merely an accurate reflection of the human experience. The sisters are absolutely comfortable with strangeness. For instance, they take Babe’s shooting escapade in stride, appearing to be more worried about the would-be murderess’s habit of gulping sugary lemonade. Striking the right tragicomic tone is essential to making Crimes of the Heart work.

Happily, this cast succeeds.

Sharples, a promising young actor, cleverly projects Babe’s lovely sense of inner quiet and earnestness. Chappell brings out Lenny’s nervousness, her touching desire to please and an underlying steeliness within the character. And Valiquette succeeds in bringing out Meg’s brassiness and emotional fragility. The cast deftly navigates the southern accents — avoiding caricature.

Stefanie Mudry’s beautifully detailed set of a 1970s-style farm kitchen is a pure joy, right from the yellow-and-turquoise countertops to the green wall phone.

While today’s matinée and evening shows are sold out, the Phoenix Theatre says there might be room for as many as 20 theatregoers on standby.

Fernwood’s Theatre Inconnu is known for its adventuresome theatre. The company’s latest venture, Neva, is another bold choice worth checking out.

The 90-minute play by Chilean playwright Guilliermo Calderon is a savage satire that can be viewed as a back-handed love letter to theatre. Well acted — it stars the ever-watchable Melissa Blank — this three-hander is a rollicking, original romp that sizzles with the audacity of such playwrights as Martin McDonagh or Steven Berkoff.

The play is set in a rehearsal theatre in St. Petersburg in 1905. Three actors rehearse Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. They include Olga Knipper (Blank), an actor and Chekhov’s widow (in the play, he has recently died). There’s also Aleko (Nicholas Guerrerio), an actor from a rich family, and Masha (Rosemary Jeffery), an actor who is in awe of Knipper’s status as a celebrated Russian performer.

Knipper, dressed in a long skirt and ruffled 19th-century blouse, launches the play with a lengthy monologue revealing both her narcissism and self-doubts as an actor. Do audiences come merely to see her fail? She pontificates neurotically about her nerves, her desire for love and praise. She zings other actors, saying of one: “Your back expressed more dramatic subtlety than your face.”

Knipper frets that she has become a mere husk, declaring: “I do not feel any more. I have became coarse.”

It’s over-the-top funny — simultaneously outrageous and yet radiating the tang of authenticity.

In order to prime her artistic pump, Knipper has her pals join her in re-enacting her final moments at Chekhov’s deathbed.

She entreats Aleko to recreate her late husband’s dying delirium, then instructs him to try again, amping up the delirium further. Meanwhile, Masha’s efforts displease the grand dame of Russian theatre — she barks: “Do you have bronchitis? You sound like an accordion!”

It’s all fun and games for a while. But as it happens, this rehearsal is taking place on Bloody Sunday, the day when the Imperial Guard infamously slaughtered demonstrators in Saint Petersburg. As the play concludes, Masha — in a fiery speech dispatched by Jeffery with admirable passion — denounces the aristocratic classes and defends the right of peasants to rise up against the rich.

“You disgust me!” says Masha — a declaration that seems aimed at both the decadent rich and the self-obsessed theatre world.

Clayton Jevne’s clear-headed direction shows an understanding and empathy for the material. During a recent performance, each of these actors had fine moments on a bare-bones stage (essentially a black box with a bench, a chair and a coat rack).

Some might find that Masha’s climactic call-to-arms pairs uneasily with the skewering of the theatre world. Most will find this play — and production — to be invigorating, provocative and hilarious.

Neva continues at Theatre Inconnu to March 3.