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Strong acting, nasty characters fuel 'Mauritius'

Tuesday, March 22, 2011  
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By Victor R. Yehling
Posted Mar 22, 2011 @ 05:18 PM

There is a lot of "poor behavior,” as playwright Theresa Rebeck describes it, in her thriller "Mauritius,” the current Artists’ Ensemble production — and there is a lot of terrific acting.

One way to be sure that an actor playing a less-than-admirable character is doing a good job is that you really want to strangle him or her. Well, there is one of each of those in this production.

Mark Ulrich is a snake in a sharkskin suit in the role of Sterling, and he just oozes slime and very bad behavior as he tries to turn the events of this taut stage piece his way ... and it doesn’t take long before you’re wishing you could do something to stop it.

And Betsie Swartz is a cold, heartless jerk as Mary, the half sister who just couldn’t come back to visit her dying mother after taking off and leaving her sibling and parent in an apparently untenable position ... and then returning after mom died to claim the cream of the "inheritance” with absolutely no consideration for the one who remained.

Not to get too far ahead of things, Mauritius is a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa — a former British colony (what wasn’t?) — which was one of the earliest countries to issue postage stamps. The first issue of two stamps is among the rarest prizes of philately, and those stamps appear to be in a collection left behind after mom died.

Jackie, the younger half sister played sharply and sassily by Casiena Raether, says mom left the stamps to her and goes off to have them evaluated by a stamp dealer.

She encounters Philip, a somewhat arrogant shop owner played well by Jamie Button, and Dennis, an utterly charming young man who offers his own review when Philip refuses. Dennis sternly sends Jackie home, and the game’s afoot.

Tension is woven wonderfully in every scene, whether it’s the sisters’ verbal battles over the "inheritance” or the philatelists’ argument over who knows what or any scene involving Sterling and anyone else. You could practically cut it with a knife.

The plot follows a semi-predictable path that seems to leave Jackie finally getting her reward, but the "S” curve has just started to unwind at that point. And it definitely is worth the wait.

Director Richard Raether has done an outstanding job of focusing on the acting, with good support from Angelo O’Dierno’s spare setting and effective lighting. Jan Bacino’s costuming is spot on as well.

The language of the play, by the way, is more than a little harsh — even though it is appropriate — so it’s not a good choice for kids or those easily offended.

This "Mauritius” certainly is not a vacation to a beautiful island, but it is an escape to an evening of excellent theater. The production runs through April 3 in the Cheek Theatre of the Clark Arts Center on the Rockford College campus. Call 815-904-2277 for ticket information.

This story appeared at on March 22, 2011.

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