Smile Politely

Mauritius not to be mis-underestimated

Mauritius | Station Theatre | Wednesday–Saturday | 8 p.m. | $8–$15

When I asked my wife to come with me to Mauritius (rhymes with malicious) at the Station Theatre this weekend, I didn’t tell her what it was about until we were halfway to Urbana.

“A stamp collection?” she asked.

“Yes, but not just a stamp collection,” I assured her, “the thingy I read said it centers around a conflict between two sisters.” I then conceded: “I think it may be a boring-old-man play,” a once pejorative term that my wife coined, but I re-appropriated at some point in our relationship, using it as shorthand for sparsely entertaining, but intellectually rewarding (whatever the hell that means) aesthetic endeavours. Needless to say, a pall hung over the night as my wife began to prepare herself for the seemingly inevitable boredom that comes with most things I’m interested in.

By the time we arrived, we were both prepared for a low-tempo, contemplative drama about coins, or envelopes, or stamps, or something. But just a few minutes into the play, it became clear that, if Maritius was indeed a boring-old-man play, its cast hadn’t been given the news. At just around two hours, Theresa Rebeck‘s Mauritius has the snappy pacing of a crime drama, which, under Prosise’s and his cast’s nuanced execution, jadedly reflects upon the Nietzschian proposition of commerce — emotional and financial alike.

Katie Baldwin as Jackie wathces Dennis ogle her collection as Phillip looks on.

Maritius‘s plot centers around Jackie (played by Katie Baldwin) who, in the wake of her mother’s passing, is reunited with her half-sister Mary (played by Jenette Jurczyk) who left for boarding school as a teenager and did not return until after her mother passed. Mary returns to find her sister frazzled by bills and bitter over being her mother’s sole caregiver. The tension alluded to here finds an avenue to express itself in the stamp collection Jackie insists her mother gave to her, while Mary insists it is rightfully hers as it belonged to her paternal grandfather.

Keep in mind that Mauritius does not just dump this information on us, but allows us to gradually, dare I say charmingly, understand the subtle complexities of its story. In the very first scene we see Jackie frantically pleading with Phillip (played by Tanino Minneci), a jaded stamp appraiser whom she’d been referred to by a comic book store clerk she had solicited to buy a bound book of collectible stamps. Barely looking up from his magazine to give her the time of day, Phillip’s coldness eventually prompts stamp hall junkie Dennis (played by Matt Fear) to take mercy on her and give his assessment of her collection.

Dennis’s curiosity is soon rewarded by what he immediately insists to Phillip is a “nice little collection,” that is until he spots something he never thought he’d see: not one, but two misprinted stamps from the island of Mauritius worth an untold fortune. Upon seeing the stamps, Dennis’s do-gooder persona gives way to that of an opportunistic con-man, set on brokering a deal between Jackie and his F-bomb dropping boss, Sterling (played by David Barkley) who covets the Mauritian stamp with a startling passion. Seeing that Jackie doesn’t know the value of what she has, and is increasingly aware of her desperate circumstance, Dennis constructs a plan to underpay her for her stamps.

Therein lies the central conflict: there is nothing simple about this play, but complexity obviously does not guarantee interesting. Thankfully, the actors delivered their dialogue this past Saturday evening with conversational snappiness and at times, psychotic derision. Most memorably, Baldwin sells a particularly image driven set of lines, wherein Jackie imagines the prospect of cutting out her own heart and replacing it with the coveted stamps before sprouting a set of scaly wings and absconding, all while puffing on a Marlboro Light 100, its cherry uncomfortably close to her sister’s face.

The familial tension begins to boil over as Jackie attempts to pimp a collection that Mary lays claim to. The pressure clearly begins to get at Jackie, who seems to vacillate between showing grace under fire and completely unraveling. Yet as the cracks in her façade reveal her frailty, and allude to a fairly serious indiscretion, Baldwin protects the audience’s sympathy for her character by selling her humanness, something Matt Fear also does with the ethically ambiguous Dennis, whose initial betrayal gives way to another and another, forming a motif that eventually resembles something of a moral code. At the end of the play, Dennis’s decisiveness allows us to finally place him in what has been up to that point a fairly allusive category. The fact that we must guess where he stands up until the end is largely a product of Fear’s performance in what must have been a hard role not to overact.

Barkley’s Sterling was equally engaging. Both comical and intense, Barkley dons a Triumph the Insult Comic Dog-style accent that lends itself to the many moments of levity that pop up throughout the play. Barkley is most impressive in Sterling’s climactic monologue that blurs the line between “motivated buyer” and salesman. Laughs sneak into this particular scene, although it never escapes a looming sense of dread. Both a thug and, somehow, a gentleman, Barkley’s performance helps us see how Sterling’s moral code prevents him from using force to steal the stamps he covets so much, but forgives his coercive tendencies, and yes, out and out violence if faced with a perceived betrayal. According to my wife, his performance is reason alone to see Mauritius — but it certainly isn’t the only reason.

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All photos courtesy of Jesse Folks.

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Note: I was rather late to the party in reviewing this fine, fine play in its second of a three week run, so make sure you see it this Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday before it’s gone for good!

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