Review: The Birds and the Bees a sex farce with heart

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Alberta Theatre Projects is ending its current season on a high note with some delightfully clever, low-brow humour.

Since its premiere at the Blyth Festival in 2016, Mark Crawford’s The Birds and the Bees has become the most widely produced new Canadian play. The production running in the Arts Commons’ Martha Cohen Theatre comes courtesy of Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre where it was such a runaway hit in 2019 that it was remounted and taken on tour in 2023. Its final stop is here at ATP until May 25, and it’s a crowd-pleasing evening of unbridled comic tomfoolery.

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Gail (Nancy Kerr) is a beekeeper whose bees are mysteriously dying. If that’s not bad enough, her middle-aged daughter Sarah (Arghavan Jenati) arrives at her door, suitcase in hand. Sarah has left her husband and their turkey farm. Mother and daughter have never really had an amicable relationship, but this puts a sharper edge on things. Mix in Earl (Gerry Mackay), an oversexed farmer who rents one of Gail’s fields, and Ben (Riley Hardwick), a shy, naive university student studying the declining bee population, and you have the perfect setup for an old-fashioned sex comedy, except there’s nothing old-fashioned about the way Crawford gets his two couples into bed, and into major problems.

ATP
Arghavan Jenati, Gerry Mackay and Nancy Kerr in The Birds and the Bees at Alberta Theatre Projects (an Arts Club Theatre Vancouver Production). Photo by Benjamin Laird Photo by Benjamin Laird Photo /cal

The play opens with Sarah’s arrival and an unexpected sex talk between mother and daughter as they discuss the absence of it in both their lives. It’s hilarious because it is so frank, but it can’t hide the hurt that both women have experienced. Gail’s husband ran off 20 years earlier with Earl’s wife, and Sarah’s husband gave up trying to have the baby Sarah has always wanted. Crawford’s dialogue sounds as natural as it is funny.

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Later, Gail and Earl have their own frank sex talk. He’s just ended yet another relationship and is missing intimacy, so he suggests he and Gail should have a no-strings-attached fling. Her disbelief is hilarious, as is his insistency. Again, the way Crawford has written the scene, the audience feels as if they are eavesdropping, and that’s why it delivers such big laughs.

Crawford also knows how to introduce outrageous physical shtick as in the case of a bee stinger lodged in Ben’s groin which requires Sarah’s help to dislodge.

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Riley Hardwick and Arghavan Jenati in The Birds and the Bees at Alberta Theatre Projects. Photo by Benjamin Laird Photo by Benjamin Laird Photo /cal

In the second act, Crawford takes his play, and his characters, into some darker corners, but he balances those moments with a return to the play’s trademark raunchy humour.

Ted Roberts’ set, with its three rooms crowded onto the Martha Cohen stage, is precisely what this play demands. It allows the action to flow quickly from room to room, and it also allows for big laughs when the wrong person enters a room because the audience is that split second ahead of the characters.

Lauren Taylor has directed the show as if it were a TV sitcom playing before a live audience. The actors deliver their lines directly to the audience so nothing is lost, and everything is properly punctuated to ensure the laughs land.

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Crawford likes his characters, so the actors must make the audience like them just as much. It’s to the credit of the talented quartet at ATP that we want things to work out for all of them, in and out of the beds.

Jenati is a bundle of nerves and repressed emotions. Hardwick is wide-eyed innocence personified, which makes their pairing so much fun. Watching Kerr take control of her relationship with Mackay is pure delight, and it’s to her credit that she gets such cheers and applause when she decides to bed him.

In Earl, Crawford has written a plumb role, and Mackay doesn’t miss a beat, first in exposing his redneck bravura, and then in showing the man’s true nature hidden beneath it.

The Birds and the Bees is two hours of unrestrained, unapologetic frivolity which is rare in live theatre these days.

It runs at Arts Commons until May 25.

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