the coronation voyage by Michel Marc Bouchard, directed by Jackie Maxwell, with Jim Mezon, Peter Krantz, Dylan Trowbridge, Donna Belleville, Susie Burnett, George Dawson and Jeff Lillico. Presented by the Shaw Festival at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to November 1. $47-$77. 1-800-511-7429. Rating : NNNN
Michel Marc Bouchard's 1995 the Coronation Voyage is the first Canadian work performed on the Shaw Festival 's mainstage in more than 25 years. Selected and directed by the Shaw's new artistic director, Jackie Maxwell , it's easily among the strongest new plays of the past decade and an excellent launch for Maxwell's tenure there. Set on a 1953 ocean liner bound from Montreal to England for the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II, the play explores the idea of a nation and individuals trying to forget the past and reinvent themselves.
On the surface, it's the story of two families. A Mafia boss known as the Chief ( Jim Mezon ) is aboard with his two sons, pianist Etienne ( Dylan Trowbridge ) and precocious 13-year-old Sandro ( Jeff Lillico ). Cabinet minister Joseph Gendron ( David Schurmann ) and his wife, Alice ( Donna Belleville ), are travelling with their daughter Marguerite ( Susie Burnett ), a pianist chosen to play at the coronation ceremonies after the Chief's enemies have brutalized Etienne's hands.
Both families' trips across the Atlantic are symbolic - the Chief is fleeing to exile and is forced to make a huge sacrifice to secure new passports for his family, while Gendron and Alice are still recovering from a different kind of sacrifice, the deaths of two sons killed at Dieppe a decade earlier.
Comic relief comes from a trio of Quebecois women all named Elisabeth who have won a contest to travel to the ceremonies. And Bouchard includes a figure called the Biographer ( George Dawson ) who's there to pen the Chief's memoirs and underline the point that all history is a matter of reinterpretation.
It's an ambitious work, rich in theme and theatricality, yet Maxwell ties the elements together in a strong production that includes Ken MacDonald 's nautical set and lighting by Alan Brodie that shifts from naturalistic sea blue to a bloody red to evoke the play's central Faustian bargain.
Not all the performances are as detailed as they could be, but there's fine work from Trowbridge as the jaded son and Lillico as the naive one, with Mezon menacing as their violent father. Special mention should be made of Belleville - the mother, incidentally, of local comics Ryan and Jason Belleville - who tears into her role and bares the wounded heart of this exceptional play.