Stage Left: Buoyed by lead actor, Bears is political, but not preachy

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Playwright Matthew MacKenzie’s award-winning Bears is a fine show — smart, imaginative, boldly visual. Yet what makes it truly memorable is Sheldon Elter, its lead actor.

The Métis performer is a mountain of a man — powerfully built with an imposing bearing. In physical terms, he seems in Bears to be a mix of Will Sampson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a young Brando.

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The central character he plays, Floyd, is the guy you’d want on your side in a bar fight. Added bonus: You’d likely enjoy the conversation afterwards.

For most of this 80-minute show, now playing at the Belfry Theatre, Elter sports workers’ overalls and a sleeveless white undershirt. His character is an Alberta oilpatch worker on the lam from the police following a so-called “workplace accident.”

Accompanied by a Greek chorus and bass-happy electronic music, Elter narrates the third-person tale of his escape through the wilds of Alberta and British Columbia.

It’s a wonderful, fantastical flight. Described by one reviewer as “unapologetically political,” MacKenzie’s interdisciplinary show is a passionate slap at the Canadian oil industry’s destruction of the environment.

Because of the potential pitfall of didacticism, politics and theatre can make for uneasy bedfellows. Yet with visual hijinks and irreverent humour, the Alberta playwright mostly avoids this — although the play’s culminating cry for “justice in this world!” is a bit heavy-handed.

How does MacKenzie tiptoe the line between potent theatre and preachiness? He makes the medicine go down with spoonfuls of sugar. Floyd’s adventures are acted out by seven sylphs in white mesh and tattered dresses.

These young women personify his encounters with nature: They become hooting gophers, fin-slipping salmon, wing-flapping grouse. When Floyd tumbles into the Fraser River, the dancers morph into a swirling whirlpool with a Maypole-like configuration of ropes. Perhaps most enchantingly, they mimic a field of alpine blossoms by donning flower hats and singing in a fashion reminiscent of 1930s movies.

Potential sappiness is further undercut by the chorus’s penchant for bawdy one-liners. They note that Floyd likes to eat “s--t-loads” of wild strawberries.

When a grouse mating ritual proves unsuccessful, the chorus declares that nothing ruins a romantic interlude “like a f--king clear-cut.”

Many of these asides tap into an acerbic pop-culture sensibility. When Floyd stands on a layer of silt, it accepts his weight “like a Posturepedic mattress.”

There’s an appealingly mythic, tall-tale sensibility to Bears. Composer Noor Dean Musani has created club-music beats to underscore MacKenzie’s notion of fusing First Nation tradition with modernity.

A sense of abstraction is suggested by the set: Cutouts of mountains and clouds are used as backdrops for projections of swirling shapes and colours.

As represented in this play, Mother Nature is humanity’s ever-forgiving ally, despite the ravages so-called civilization imposes upon her.

In one scene, an insistent butterfly leads Floyd out of harm’s way with Disney-like benevolence. Bears even suggests Floyd makes the beast with two backs with a grizzly bear — he hints afterwards at “post-coital” bliss.

Not (thankfully) literally depicted, it is one of the play’s few missteps. So is, to a lesser extent, the inclusion of the character of his deceased mother played by Tracey Nepinak — the character seems tacked on.

Yet overall, Bears, the winner of two Dora awards, is unrelentingly entertaining. With its wit, visual bedazzlements and vigorous mix of new and old storytelling traditions, we get the sense theatre remains a dynamic force in the face of injustice and human folly.

To the actors’ great credit, the show went Wednesday night despite a medical emergency. An ambulance had to be called for an ailing audience member (the Belfry Theatre says the woman is recuperating).

This meant the proceedings were halted for 20 minutes halfway through. It’s challenging for performers to get back on track after such an unavoidable interruption — and they managed it without a hitch. Kudos.

Bears continues at the Belfry Theatre through Feb. 24.

Upcoming: The Canadian College of Performing Arts continues its run of the musical Sweet Charity tonight, Feb. 7, 8 and 9 at its Oak Bay performance hall. Tickets can be purchased via ccpacanada.com or by phoning 250-595-9970.

Pacific Opera Victoria has set Verdi’s La traviata in the 1920s for a production opening at the Royal Theatre on Valentine’s Day. Soprano Lucia Cesaroni sings Violetta, while tenor Colin Ainsworth performs the role of Alfredo.

The opera continues Feb. 16, 20, 22 and 24. Tickets are available by phoning the Royal and McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or via rmts.bc.ca.

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