Monday, April 27, 2009

Theater Review: "Mauritius" @ The Pasadena Playhouse

Editor's Note: "The Beat" blogger Marc Cabrera recently completed the 2009 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theatre and Musical Theatre, hosted by the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. During the fellowship, Cabrera reviewed several plays as writing assignments. The following is his review of "Mauritius" performed at The Pasadena Playhouse.

Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" is a con within a con within a con, revolving around the geeked-out world of rare stamp collecting, the geeked-out thugs who secretly run the hobby's peculiar black market, and the women who love them.

At its core, however, is a story of redemption, on five fronts, led by Jackie, a young, seeming naive abuse survivor desperate for self-respect and a way to rid herself of a rotten family history.

Rebeck's script is given the royal treatment in the hands of director Jessica Kubzansky and her talented cast, led by Kristen Kollender as Jackie. The subtleties of the characters are what propel the story and bring it to life on stage. The Pasadena Playhouse production fleshes out several things that transcend the script's written word.

Beginning with the characters, in particular the intense back and forth between stamp shop owner Phillip (John Billingsley) and collector/gun runner Sterling (Ray Abruzzo, aka "LIttle Carmine" from "The Sopranos"). Their exchanges on stage capture the painful choreography of familiar, mismatched foes, of predator and prey.

When Sterling shows up at Phillip's shop to confront him about the mysterious sighting of the "crown jewel of philately," watching Sterling control the situation and Phillip turn to mush is something that can only be appreciated on stage. The way Abruzzo struts around stage like a jungle cat sizing up its next victim, ready to pounce, and the poor, helpless Phillip standing frozen in its sights is a great example of two experienced actors working every angle of the scene.

Later on, when Phil gets a small measure of revenge on Sterling, the way he tries to throw it in his face, only to have it thrown back with interest, is another instance of the performance transcending the page, something you could only see in the theater.

For that matter, Abruzzo's delivery and comfort zone playing Sterling also merits mention as an only in the theater moment. Playing Sterling as a principled business man who isn't afraid to reveal some vulnerability when it comes to his passion for stamps, Abruzzo gives the character more weight than the script outlines.

When talking about his passion for the hobby, he marvels at the perfection rather than the errors that collectors pine for. When he says a line like "It wasn't shit, but it wasn't good" to describe the Royal Philatelic Society museum collection, he's using every bit of the character's measure - respect, intimidation, attitude.

Kubzansky's direction deserves credit on a needs to be seen basis. The pacing the play, with its winding dialogue and character fleshing, was handled considerably well under Kubzansky's watch. The scenes unfold with ease, and the second act, which takes place entirely in the stamp shop, never drags. Kubzansky knows how to use all of her actors on stage at once, giving them enough space to even out the scene.

The impressive revolving set was also a very nice touch. Rotating between the stamp shop, a coffee shop and Jackie's home, the set design and backdrop put you right in each scene. There is now doubt of place or time, another credit both the the director and stage crew.

Finally, the accompanying sound backdrop gave the production the added flavor that the script might not catch. Using spare tones to trumpet some of the more intense scenes, the score brought out the different moods from scene to scene that you might not have caught in the script.

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