Emily Mann Directs World Premiere
The 1871 play was based upon Le Juif Polonais (The Polish Jew), by MM Erckman-Chatrian. It employed a sturdy, much used melodramatic plot device dating back centuries, and was so successful that it provided a career-sustaining role for John Irving for many years.
Ms. Rebeck has transposed the play from 1833 Alsace to the Yukon in 1917 at the very tail end of the Alaskan Gold Rush. Dialogue, background, details and some characters have been totally altered. However, the basic story is intact. Mathias, a successful businessman, has built his fortune on funds obtained by murdering an outsider (Rebeck might have titled her version The Wandering Chinaman). Now, it is many years later on the Christmas Eve anniversary of the crime, and Mathias is planning to marry off his daughter to a newcomer who is seeking to solve the crime. However, Mathias, haunted by the sounds inside his head of ringing bells he heard on the night of the crime, is loosing his sanity.
It can only be assumed that Rebeck has a genuine interest in the Alaskan Gold Rush and its aftermath. There are extensive, compelling and informative, program notes provided. The story is certainly opened up to take us out of doors into the Alaskan snowscape.
Director Emily Mann has mounted an outstanding production. From the deep-focus black and white landscapes of set designer Eugene Lee to the sharply edged lighting of Frances Aronson to Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s authentic and colorful costumes, the work of the design team is visually engaging and enhances the storytelling. Lanterns play a major role in the production, and they glow fiercely to represent the blinding pain inside Mathias’ head. It would probably be fairest to credit director, lighting designer, and author together for this brilliant device.
The performances are solid throughout. The critical role of Mathias is limned by Ted Marcoux who solidly conveys innate decency and collapsing sanity. Marin Ireland as his daughter, Annette, displays a weather-beaten beauty in both appearance and mien which perfectly conveys her character. Annette is the only one person that Rebeck gives us to care about, and Ireland maximizes our rooting interest.
Fiona Gallagher (Sally), Michael McCarty (Charlie), and Paul Butler (Jim) ably provide color and some humor as three raffish alcoholics surviving on Mathias’ largess. Butler gets in some solid dramatic licks before the evening runs its course. Christopher Innvar is appropriately solid and stolid as the newly arrived Baptiste. The same applies to Pun Bandhu’s XuiFei. Bandhu does show a warm side when, in the remembered past, he gifts Annette with two bells. However, for the most part, it is the author who has failed to find the solution to the difficult task of humanizing XuiFei’s ghost.
Emily Mann has poured her considerable heart and talent into The Bells. She has directed as boldly and vividly as Rebeck’s script allows, and created her strongest visual images to support the story at hand.
Therefore, it is Rebeck’s text which must bear the responsibility for the evening’s failure to engage our hearts and minds. I cannot say that Lewis’ 1871 melodrama (even with elisions) would work today. However, I can say that it is not possible to strip a melodrama of all its supposed excesses, without stripping it of its essentials. The “more richly imagined language” with which Rebeck intended to improve the melodrama sounds rather mundane. There are no lines which stand out as rich, illuminating or compelling. Neither is there improved psychological nuance offered here. The ghost of XuiFei now plays a role in unnerving Mathias. This is less of a psychological device than Mathias’ fears that he will incriminate himself in his madness and his dream trial in the Lewis original.
Given the discouraging persistence of European anti-Semitism, the victimization of the Jewish peddler in 19th century Europe in the Lewis has greater resonance for us than Rebeck manages to provide for XuiFei despite his presence as a ghost forced to wander about because he has been denied proper burial. The new crime which Rebeck’s Mathias commits to cover up his act of murder thematically muddies the waters. The idea that one dastardly act can lead a “good” person down a slippery slope is a mainstay of literature, but it runs counter to the very being of a Mathias who is losing his sanity under the burden of his initial act.
Possibly, the biggest problem is that it is apparent what Mathias has done so early on that we sit through much of the play impatiently waiting for revelations which come without surprise. Even in the final scene, what should be high melodrama feels underwritten.
The good news here is that McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, who keeps adding colors to her palette, is in excellent directorial form. For McCarter audiences, that is very good news indeed.
The Bells continues performances through April 10, 2005 -Wed, Thurs at 7:30 PM; Fri at 8PM; Sat at 3 & 8PM; Sun at 2 & 7:30 PM (except. 4/10 at 7:30PM)- at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton NJ 08540; box office: 609-258-ARTS; online www.mccarter.org.
The Bells written by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Emily Mann
Cast (in order of appearance):