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'SOEURS' CASTS COMIC LIGHT ON WASTED LIVES

"Les Belles Soeurs" is a comedy about a Quebecois housewife who has won a million trading stamps in a national Canadian contest and has invited her sisters and friends to a stamp-pasting party. As the women paste the stamps into the booklets, they gradually reveal their envy.

This is 1968 Montreal, and these are a dozen of society's biggest losers. This is the first time any of them has ever won anything.

At times, all 15 female characters are on the stage, in the winner's brightly-painted kitchen. This posed quite a challenge for the stage manager, Spring Usborne. But she devised some very effective staging for this "kitchen sink" play about the plight of working-class women whose only relief from domestic drudgery is TV -- and the dream of winning big.

One peculiar aspect of their portrayal of French-speaking Quebeckers is that many of them speak in a clipped accent that sounds Polish-American. This may possibly be director Rochelle Sanders' way of rendering the Quebecois street French, which is a far cry from that spoken in France.

Or it could mean something else.

The central character, played with authority by Rosemary Shaw, will soon be "swimming in velvet" (including velvet art) when she cashes in these stamps for most of the furniture, appliances and knickknacks shown in the catalog.

The women take turns stepping forward to deliver a monologue about how she is "fed up with this stupid, rotten life." As Ellen Opiela talks about the traveling salesman who is "the first man who ever cared about me," the others are frozen in twilight, springing back to life with a chorus of amens. Playwright Michel cqTremblay's use of this technique almost cries out for the monologues to be sung.

The winner's mouthy sister, played hilariously by Joy Scime, also seizes the opportunity to deliver a diatribe against her sex-obsessed husband, wringing some real pathos out of her situation. The lamentation of wasted lives runs throughout the play.

Kelly Beuth is riveting as the downtrodden wife who has to wheel around her demented mother-in-law, played by the cast's only male actor, Mark Wolff.

Ann Barrett and Joanne Fleischman play two older women who have a falling out when it's revealed that one of them periodically visits a nightclub where the black-sheep sister, played by Keely Sheehan, works as a prostitute. Sheehan's uninvited appearance at the coupon-licking party is the turning point in the play, bringing to the front a subplot involving the teen-agers in the drama, played by Suzanne Fitzery, Kate LoConti and Carolyn Storms.

Little by little, we notice one or two of the friends -- and sisters -- slipping a full coupon book into her purse. Stay tuned for the fireworks.

RATING: *** stars

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