Chamber Theatre puts its stamp on “Mauritius”
“Stamps? Really!? Nobody thinks about stamps,” said Andrew Volkoff, who is directing a play about stamps for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius previews Thursday and opens Friday (Feb. 18) at the Broadway Theatre Center.
Thus did Volkoff, a Milwaukee native, characterize his initial reaction to the subject and the typical reaction he encounters in discussing the play. But a little research showed that lots of people think about stamps. In the play, desire for them leads to violence and rancor.
“I was floored to find out how much stamps can be worth,” Volkoff said, opening a thick folder of research. The stamps in question — a pair of British colonials, vintage 1847, from, Mauritius — are real. They exceedingly rare and valued in the millions.
“If you say ‘stamps,’ nobody gets it,” Volkoff said. “But they’re essentially antiques. I understand antiques. Even the smallest things can create passions and drive people to do things they wouldn’t do. The paper, the dye, the glue — not worth anything. They’re worth money because people have passion. They fill holes in people’s lives. As we learned in Charade, stamp collecting can be hazardous to your health.”
Volkoff referred to Stanley Donen’s 1963 chase film, in which Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and assorted bad guys dash about Europe in pursuit of an envelope. Everyone assumes the value lies in the contents. It turns out that the value lies in the stamps on the envelope. Alfred Hitchcock used to call such objects of desire, the things that leads to desperate bad behavior, the McGuffins. He thought that the exact nature of the McGuffin mattered little. But it is somehow more poignant when the object is so scant in materials and obsolete in use that you couldn’t even use it to mail a letter.
In Rebeck’s play, two sisters, Jackie — made desperate and ferocious by financial pressure — and the retiring, well-off Mary vie for control of an inherited stamp collection. Sterling, a fabulously wealthy and very shady collector, wants to buy. Philip, a dealer, holds his intentions close to the vest. Dennis, a con man, tries to broker a deal. Double crosses, a punch in the face, and some spirited strangulation ensues.
“What do these people want, what’s driving them?” Volkoff said. “Who do you root for?” He and the playwright want to keep us guessing in all of Act 1 and much of Act 2. The idea is to wind the spring tighter and tighter before finally letting it fly.
The play moves briskly, mostly in taut, terse exchanges of dialogue. I’ve read it; it’s a page-turn.
Volkoff, who has lived in New York for years, met Rebeck there by chance.
“I was poking around in the Drama Bookshop in New York,” he said. “I noticed that this winey, cheesey thing going on, but I didn’t pay any attention. The I heard a clerk ask another customer if she wanted to meet Theresa Rebeck — and my head popped up over the shelves. I raced over and said I’m directing your show! And she Oh that’s so cool! And I said, I have a few questions about Mary! And she said, Everybody has questions about Mary!
“She’s been extremely helpful. She also signed a copy of the script for me, which I donated to Chamber Theatre for their auction.”
“Theresa believes that everyone is a little broken,” Volkoff said. “They need something to put them back together. It might be a stamp, or it might be the money from selling the stamp. Think about Antiques Roadshow, and the idea of this magic bullet for all your problems might sitting in your attic.”
Mauritius opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18, at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, 148 N. Broadway. It runs through March 13. Tickets are $30-$35 at the BTC box office, 414 291-7800, and at the MCT website. (A preview performance is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday.)
I will be MCT’s guest speaker at a pre-performance Viewpoints session at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23. Do drop by and say hello. I’ll show you my stamp collection. Really.