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Locked-in romance leaves a lot to talk about

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Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess with waist-length blond hair, inhabiting a tower where handsome suitors came to win her heart and kingdom.

That’s the story John understands when he arrives breathless, after climbing 33 storeys of stairs, to the lofty lair of Beatrice, a bored young woman determined to find her Prince Charming. In her version of speed dating, she throws down three challenges to her candidates but none so far have been able to "interest, move and seduce her," and so win a substantial reward.

In Carole Frechette’s loopy comic romance John & Beatrice, which opened the Theatre Projects Manitoba season Thursday night, it quickly becomes clear this is no fairy tale where love conquers all and everyone lives happily ever after.

Nothing is as it’s described by the befuddling Beatrice, who has plastered her neighbourhood with posters describing herself as a "well-to-do young heiress, intelligent and perceptive, who has never loved anyone." Her dubious association to royalty is being the daughter of the late plastic garbage can king.

John is her 15th possible paramour. Polaroid photos of her previous wannabe beaus hang on a line on the wall in her sparsely furnished room, and encounters a young woman dressed vaguely like a genie with Rapunzel-like hair, munching on apples. Are they the forbidden fruit of Eve or the poison apple of Snow White?

Oh yeah — Beatrice has narcolepsy and falls asleep frequently.

That’s part of the appeal of John & Beatrice; the quirky story seems familiar but it darts back and forth between fantasy and realism, ensuring its direction is unpredictable and irresistible. Frechette, a prominent Quebec playwright, with director Ardith Boxall, creates a momentum of suspense that engages the audience for most of the 90 minutes in Beatrice’s misguided quest for transcendent love.

Tracy Penner is a delightful heroine, earning empathy from audience members for Beatrice despite the character’s pathological lying, incessant chattering and excessive delusions. Penner’s expressive face registers all the quicksilver emotional transitions of the character.

The trials of this Everywoman are recognizable. Her poster is like an exaggerated self-description on a dating website. She has these sketchy notions of love that sound as if they come from a Cosmo cover story: love your man by cooking him a rack of lamb, buying him pine-scented aftershave and screaming during sex.

In John, Beatrice has met her match, or so she thinks. He is a hunter, an all-business bounty hunter dressed all in black, and Kevin Klassen plays him as cool, focused and resourceful, willing to do whatever it takes to seduce her, even if it means attempting to sing the fiendishly difficult aria Nessum Dorma from the Puccini opera Turandot (another reference to a woman who can only be wed by a suitor answering her three riddles). Klassen’s performance is lively and assured but the part is not as developed as the role of Beatrice.

John completes the challenges and claims the reward. In Beatrice’s fantasy world, she thinks she is the prize, but John is a show-me-the-money guy and demands the pile of $20 bills he has been promised. That’s when Beatrice’s story begins to unravel and she discovers she has mistaken John for mushy when he is mercenary. He is not interested, moved or seduced  — even when she sheds her falseness and exposes who she really is.

They duel in the locked apartment room, enhanced with some striking visuals by Hugh Conacher, after Beatrice has tossed the key out of the window in the hopes of unlocking John’s steel heart. She makes all kinds of attempts to get him to warm up to her but it becomes obvious she can’t draw him into her fantasy.

John & Beatrice does not tie up neatly but leaves a lot to talk about on the way home.

Theatre Review
John & Beatrice
Theatre Projects Manitoba
To Nov. 11 at Rachel Browne Theatre
Tickets: $15-$25 at 204-989-2400
Four stars out of five

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