Taut, Tense ‘Mauritius’ a Gripping Tale of Mystery and Intrigue

From left to right:  Chris Shonka (Sterling), Alissa Walker (Jackie), Karl Rohling (Philip), Will Muller (Dennis), Julie Fitzgerald Ryan (Mary)

From left to right: Chris Shonka (Sterling), Alissa Walker (Jackie), Karl Rohling (Philip), Will Muller (Dennis), Julie Fitzgerald Ryan (Mary)

What is the value of two little pieces of paper?  Is it intrinsic?  Financial?  Sentimental?  Whatever the worth, these two little pieces of paper bring out the worst in people in Mauritius, the Omaha Playhouse’s 91st season premiere.

Theresa Rebeck’s script is a nice, modern take on the crime noir genre.  While mostly dialogue driven, the words have a sharp, crisp energy that immerses the audience and makes one lose track of time though the ending is a bit overlong.  Most intriguing is the fact that Rebeck often makes innuendos about what happened in the past to these characters, but leaves it to the audience’s imagination to determine what may have happened.  Sometimes this technique works well such as the reasons for a mysterious grudge between two characters and not so well at other points such as the lack of explanation for a character’s knowledge of a trick involving duct tape and a plastic bag.

Jeff Horger, making his full directorial debut at the Playhouse, and Assistant Director Nick Albrecht have done exceptional work in guiding this mystery story.  The action slowly builds, beat by beat, growing ever tenser until the play’s climax and denouement.  Horger and Albrecht have also done a fine job shaping the performances of their quintet of actors.

Alissa Walker strikes gold in her Playhouse debut.  As Jackie, the younger of two half-sisters, Ms Walker paints a tragic picture of an emotionally dead woman who wants nothing more than to escape her wretched life and be reborn into a better one.  Jackie believes this new life can be bought with a lot of cash and stakes a claim to an album of rare stamps, hoping to sell two Mauritius stamps and be set for life.

Labeled as a lamb by another character early in the show, Ms Walker’s Jackie is anything but.  She is so eaten up by anger that she has nothing left to give emotionally.  Ms Walker skillfully demonstrates this state with a flat, controlled, nearly emotionless tone of voice.  However, her character’s anger does become more volatile when she senses that her dreams of Easy Street may be threatened such as wrecking her late mother’s living room and punching out her half-sister. Ms Walker’s Jackie is also a survivor which has given her a surprising strength and confidence mighty enough to go verbally, intellectually, and physically toe to toe with a dangerous criminal determined to get her stamps.

As good as her performance was, Ms Walker does need to keep up her projection which weakened a bit in Act II.  She also needs to watch her positioning as she upstaged herself on a couple of occasions.

Julie Fitzgerald Ryan is wonderful as Mary, Jackie’s much older half-sister.  She escaped from a bad home situation when she was 16 and has finally returned home to ostensibly pay last respects to her and Jackie’s late mother and attempt to build a relationship with Jackie.  While an element of those sentiments may exist, Mary really wants the stamp book which she says was left to her by her grandfather.

While Ms Walker’s Jackie is almost devoid of emotion, Ms Fitzgerald Ryan’s Mary is almost afraid of it.  Mary also bottles up a lot of anger, but Ms Fitzgerald Ryan has her attempt to ignore it by being overly solicitous and friendly instead.  But her true feelings often explode out of her as she constantly clashes with Jackie over their mother and what to do with the stamps.  But each time she explodes, she catches herself and tries to smother it with more attempts at solicitude.

What I truly enjoyed about Ms Fitzgerald Ryan’s performance was how subtle she made Mary’s true nature.  You may think she’s a nice person.  She isn’t.  Mary is incredibly selfish as she will not share the stamps with Jackie.  Her love of the stamps for their sentimental value is equally as powerful as Jackie’s greed and those motivations coupled with tremendous chemistry with Ms Walker made for some powerful confrontations.

Will Muller is perfectly cast as Dennis, the con artist.  With his babyface and velvet smooth voice, how could you not trust him?  Dennis is the one who first learns of Jackie’s Mauritius stamps and concocts the scheme to get them from her.  Interestingly, Muller gives his con artist a shocking bit of honesty and sincerity.  He is not out to steal the stamps from Jackie.  He merely wants to get them for as low a price as possible so he can profit more from a resale.  Muller’s easygoing, laconic delivery made his Dennis a very enjoyable watch, but he does need to increase his volume.  He was very soft-spoken in the first act, though he did pick up the volume in Act II.

Chris Shonka radiates menace and danger as Sterling.  Sterling is a wealthy criminal who loves collecting stamps despite having no knowledge of philately.  Be wary for he is not one to be trifled with.  What Sterling wants, he gets, and he has no qualms about using threats and violence to get what he wants.  Shonka’s awesome physical presence combined with a venomous delivery from his rich bass voice made his Sterling a beast to be feared and a force to be reckoned with.

Sterling’s love of stamps borders on the creepy and lewd.  He almost seems to view stamps as virgins as he loathes it when they are touched by others and describes his viewing of the Mauritius stamps as a post-coital experience.  The only critique I can make is for Shonka to go even further with Sterling’s nearly lascivious love of stamps.

Karl Rohling is a misanthropic grump as Philip.  He is the only character in the play who is a true philatelist, but even his love of stamps has faded as he has grown fed up with evaluating the worthless stamps of others.  Philip is a wonderfully multilayered character and Rohling deftly peels off the many layers of Philip like a snake shedding skins.  Starting off as rude and obnoxious, Rohling shows these traits to be mere symptoms of the fact that Philip is a broken, haunted man as the result of Sterling being involved in the dissolution of his marriage.  With a slump of his shoulders and a whiplash change in delivery, Rohling shows the deep sadness of Philip.  Later he is given the opportunity to show Philip’s vengeful side when he engages in a game of intrigue against Sterling and eventually indulges in unmitigated joy when his love of stamps is reignited.

Jim Othuse’s collectibles shop set is simple, understated, and pitch perfect.  Combined with Darin Kuehler’s wonderful properties, it becomes a thing of beauty.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are well suited to the characters’ personalities.

The fight scenes could use a bit more rehearsal as the actors seemed a little hesitant and unsure which resulted in the brawls looking a little unrealistic and overly controlled.  However that confidence will come with more practice and performances.  I also thought that the age difference between the two actresses may be too disparate for them to believably be half-sisters, but the quality of their performances made this a fairly negligible issue.

Mauritius is an excellent, well paced mystery story that should enthrall the audiences and I foresee a successful run, especially as this group has built a strong foundation from which they will continue to evolve over the next few weeks.

Mauritius runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through September 13.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $35 for adults and $21 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com or call the Box Office at 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.  Mauritius contains strong language and violence and is not recommended for children.

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