Theatre Review: “Mauritius” at the Phoenix

LtR - Shane Chuvalas, Rock Mers, Allison Moody, Jamison Kay Garrison, Michael Shelton in Mauritius - photo by JulieCurryPhotography.com

Last Thursday night, my friend Fran and I met downtown at the Phoenix Theatre to see “Mauritius.” It was written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Dale McFadden.  It closed last Saturday, so my comments won’t help you decide whether or not to go see it for yourself, but I would still like to record a few thoughts about this suspenseful show anyway.  I really enjoyed it.  Fran said she did, too.

The play opens in a stamp collector’s shop.  A gabby young woman, Jackie (Allison Moody), asks the dapper owner and expert, Phillip (Michael Shelton), to appraise the stamp collection that she inherited from her recently deceased mother.  She is desperate for some cash.  He is not remotely interested in the tattered collecting book that she clutches to her chest.

However, leaning up against one wall of the shop is the softly-slick Dennis (Shane Chuvalas.)  He does find the woman and her stamp collection “inta-resting.”

Enough so that he later tells his criminally rich partner and fellow stamp enthusiast, Sterling (Rock Mers), about what he saw in Jackie’s book: a very rare stamp known as “the crown jewel of philately.” 

Together they go back to Phillip’s shop to try and convince him to help them con Jackie out of her treasure.  Sterling’s interest in stamps goes beyond that of a collector’s.  He is a fetishist.  (He gave me the creeps!) But either way, he needs Phillip to verify that the stamps are real.

In the meantime, Jackie is already dealing with a con at home.  Her long-estranged half-sister, Mary (Jamison Kay Garrison), has arrived after the funeral, after their mother’s illness, to “help” go through their mother’s things.  She claims the stamp collection for her own, saying her grandfather gave it to her and that she could never sell it.  She recalls the many happy hours that she and he spent together, working on it.

Mary is a piece of work herself.

But she is also pretty, polished, calm…for all of the two sisters’ lives, people have called Jackie the crazy, stupid one.

There is a lot that goes unsaid in both the conversations between the two sisters and the conversations between the three men.  I loved the authenticity of this: people in a relationship don’t say what everyone in that relationship already knows about its history.  Those of us observing from the dark seats get only hints about what has gone on before we sat down to watch this play.  However, those hints are enough for us to believe the thick tension that exists between all of the characters and to slowly come to understand them a little better.  The gradual unfoldings are very satisfying.

For one thing, we know that in some ways, Jackie is stupid.  When she goes back to the stamp shop alone to meet the men and bargain with them, she doesn’t seem to understand what is clear to us in the audience: she is in DANGER from the tightly-coiled Sterling’s barely-contained propensity for violence and Dennis’ can’t-help-it allegiance to him.  I kept wanting to scream, “Get out of there NOW!”

Hah!  My heart is racing again, remembering that scene a week later.

But Jackie is also like a rare stamp.  Yes, she is “damaged,” but as one of the characters also says, “It’s the errors that make (stamps) valuable.”   Jackie is stronger and smarter than I first thought, and motivated by more than just financial desperation.   I loved the surprise of her real motivation.

I loved this show for its complex characters and its exciting story (and the theatrical design elements in this production, about which I’ll say more in a minute) but I think that real-life stamp collectors would also enjoy this show as much as Fran and I did.  Although I enjoy looking at stamps, I don’t quite get the passion that some people feel for these tiny slips of paper.  However, I do understand the pleasure of collecting other things, say, viewings of theatrical productions.  I believed the passion in the stamp collectors in this show and I enjoyed being introduced to their world. 

During intermission, I overheard a man sitting near us tell his date about one of his own stamp collecting adventures.

“I knew in five minutes he was a complete thief,” he said.

I think this exciting show probably prompts many real-life stamp collectors to share their real-life adventures.

The program doesn’t say who selected the wonderfully jazzy, and sometimes tinkly-sneaky, music for this show, but it was a perfect fit.  Dani Norberg was the stage manager and light and sounder operator.

Producer Bryan Fonseca designed the noir-ish lights that made me shiver deliciously and feel as if I were in one of Raymond Chandler’s private investigator novels.

Costume designer Karen Witting put all of the characters in clothes that delightfully matched their personalities and situations:  Mary in a tidy, preppy, argyle sweater and skirt; Jackie in much cheaper, ill-fitting clothes that didn’t look bad, exactly, but looked like something from a Mart or a thrift-store bin; Dennis in a brown leather jacket because he is a sexy hoodlum but his heart is good and he may yet prove to be a helpful wizard on Jackie’s elfquest; Sterling in a black leather jacket because he is sexy, too, but menacing, and black leather is scarier than brown; and Phillip in a jaunty cap and thick mustache because he may have been messed over by Sterling in the past but he is sexy, too, and far from being completely defeated by life.

I also loved the details in Linda Janosko’s set and technical director Chris Hansen’s props.  We see the back of the gold lettering on the stamp shop’s big picture window but also the owner’s globe, his chess set, his messy shelves of catalogs, and his bulletin board covered with postcards and maps.  A burgundy velvet-covered folding screen and skillful lighting effectively delineate the mother’s home as needed.

My only quibble with this production is that when the simmering violence did sometimes erupt into slaps and struggles, it didn’t seem, well, violent.  It was odd, especially after the fast-paced, almost unbearable tension-building that led up to it.

But it didn’t distract me enough to take me out of the story or lessen my enjoyment of the piece as a whole.

“Mauritius” closed at the Phoenix on Saturday, March 28, 2009, but in the curtain talk last Thursday night, Phoenix managing director Sharon Gamble said that Thursdays are always “cheap seats night” thanks to Duke Energy.  Duke Energy will continue to sponsor “cheap seat Thursdays” for the Phoenix’s next production, “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot,” by Jose Riveras.  It opens Thursday, April 9, 2009.  Call 317-635-PLAY (7529) to make reservations.

By the way, if your company would like to explore a partnership with the Phoenix, give Sharon a call at the Phoenix’ administrative office (317-635-2381.) 

Also by the way, Fran recognized Indiana Repertory Theatre star Priscilla Lindsay with a friend in the Phoenix audience last Thursday night.  I was too shy to introduce myself, but I am looking forward to seeing Ms. Lindsay in “Love Letters” next season at the IRT.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

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