“Uncle Oscar’s Experiment has a crackling vitality” says Chronicle Herald

Elissa Barnard reviews Uncle Oscar’s Experiment. Read “Theatre review: Uncle Oscar stirs up frenetic fun” below or at The Chronicle Herald.

Much like Uncle Oscar himself, Zuppa Theatre Co.’s Uncle Oscar’s Experiment is a mad scientist’s brew of music, dance, theatre and fairy tale.

The unusual, hour-long show, first performed outdoors in 2003, is fun, theatrically rewarding and difficult to define.

Even director Alex McLean says in his notes this experiment is far from over. “Conclusions have yet to be drawn,” he writes.

The play, kinetic, electric and operatic, is about an experiment and also experimental in style.

Stewart Legere, with springy, platinum hair, is the mad scientist Uncle Oscar. Years ago, he saved a dying boy, now his devoted servant Gregory, played by Ben Stone with a partly shaved head beneath his aviator’s hat.

The elastic-faced Kiersten Tough, who has the most demure hair in pigtails, is Felicity Luckless, a little girl who is considered cursed. Wherever she goes there is disaster and death. Despairing, she comes to Uncle Oscar to be cured.

The sweet and easily influenced, sometimes cross-eyed, Gregory falls for her, but Uncle Oscar is willing to go to dangerous lengths to effect his cure.

As the angel, Susan Leblanc-Crawford offers clipped red hair, a flowing white dress, dancer’s limbs and a beautiful keening voice. Later, costume designer Leesa Hamilton gives her a princess’s dream of a red ball gown.

Drawing on their roots in physical theatre and clowning, Zuppa also looked to melodrama and the gory Parisian Grand Guignol theatre tradition in creating this experiment.

The actors’ heightened vocal and gestural performances are harnessed by McLean acting as a choreographer. He precisely times a stop-and-start exaggerated movement to the wonderful, varied music of composer Jason Michael MacIsaac, on piano, 12-string, accordion, guitar and banjo, and arranger David Christensen on flute, clarinet and percussion.

The music is a journey from Parisian cafes to a Klezmer band, from celestial operatic notes to wacky song and dance numbers.

Dressed in white suits that match the scientific, innocent or sacred whites of the other characters’ clothes, MacIsaac and Christensen weave in and out of the ensemble. The instruments also act as props. A guitar case turns into a revolving door. An accordion becomes a machine that sucks negative energy out of Felicity.

Uncle Oscar’s Experiment has a crackling vitality so that when the actors, at the end, become casual players it’s like a balloon deflates and a wonderful imaginary world vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Written by Zuppa with Peter McBain, the show does have serious themes, hidden under its shiny cloak, of love, mortality, spirituality and faith.

This 10th anniversary edition has a fully realized set of giant exploding light motifs by Katherine Jenkins-Ryan; clever, focused lighting by Jessica Lewis; and strong costume design by Hamilton with Cathleen MacCormack.

Opening night was dedicated to beloved Halifax actress Vanessa Walton-Bone who died of cancer Wednesday. It’s a show she would have liked.