20 June 2010

Getting a stamp on Mauritius

Fresh from directing the NZ International Arts Festival success Mary Stuart, Ross Jolly is back to introduce New Zealand audiences to the work of American playwright, Theresa Rebeck, whose cat-and-mouse thriller Mauritius opens at Circa on 26 June. Ross tells drama on the waterfront all about his latest directorial offering, his fascination for Rebeck’s writing and his boyhood stamp collection.

DOTW: Please tell us a bit about Mauritius, what is the story?

RJ: Well, the story involves two half-sisters who inherit a rare book of stamps and included in the collection are the one penny and two penny Post Office stamps Mauritius, which are regarded as the crown jewels of philately. They turn out to be worth an awful lot of money, millions of dollars. The sisters are sort of squabbling over who owns the collection, one of them wants to sell and the other doesn’t, and into this squabble come three rather shady stamp collectors who turn out to be very, very interested in making a lot of money out of the deal. They’re pretty tough and nasty characters. And so begins a high suspense con-game of cross and double-cross. The characters end up in a battle of wits to secure the fabled stamps. This play is a new perspective on the benign hobby of stamp collecting.

DOTW: What was it that drew you to this play?

RJ: I had just come off of directing a very large play: 11 actors in a period piece, Mary Stuart. Mauritius came across as very sharp and modern, and wow, what a playwright Theresa Rebeck is! Mauritius has a wonderfully plotted script with twists and turns and surprises that certainly held my attention and I’m sure will rivet an audience as they wonder what the hell is going to happen next!

DOTW: Obviously, the Post Office Mauritius stamps figure prominently in this play. What do you know about philately, or stamp collecting? Do people have to be familiar with it to understand this play?

RJ: No, you don’t have to be familiar with stamps to understand or appreciate the play. Stamps are just the catalyst for a game of cross and double-cross, they’re just a very valuable “MacGuffin”, if you will, something that everybody wants. It could be a secret formula or gold, but in this case it is a very expensive stamp collection. It’s unusual; Theresa Rebeck found out about stamp collecting online, just surfing about online and was stunned to discover how much rare stamps are actually worth.

As a boy I had a stamp collection and I used to put them into my album with those little hingey things. Anyway, I went away to boarding school and when I came back, my brother had taken charge of my collection. And even though I’ve asked repeatedly, he won’t give it back to me. This is life imitating art! And I’m not sure if he hasn’t disposed of them one way or another for pecuniary gain. But that’s just a little sidebar.

DOTW: As you mentioned, most people think of stamp collecting as a quiet, solitary or benign pursuit. How does the play treat this common perception?

RJ: As I said, the stamps themselves are the catalyst for the con game, so what you have is something that’s rare and valuable. Rebeck gets compared to David Mamet sometimes because of the very rare coin in his play, American Buffalo. But it can be a very rare anything, the keys to the bank vault or something, the thing that everybody wants. It’s the desire; everybody is crazy and scrabbling, desperate for those stamps. And people will go to hefty lengths to get them in a Quentin Tarantino kind of way, violence is not off the menu.

DOTW: You’ve said that Theresa Rebeck has been compared to Mamet; what are your thoughts on her as a playwright?

RJ: I hadn’t come across Theresa before and someone said I should read Mauritius. I thought it was just great. This is a very intricately plotted play, this is playwright who knows what she’s doing. I have learned since that she has written extensively and award-winningly for television, Law and Order, NYPD Blue, and so on. This shows in the writing, her aptitude for plotting and building suspense and getting us to stay on for the next installment and see what’s happening. Mamet’s writing is often very male-based but Theresa Rebeck introduces very strong and detailed female characters, which gives the play a lot more appeal. She definitely knows how to hold an audience’s interest. And she’s also very funny. We’ve got a guy from a writing course sitting in, he’s American, and he was chuckling away during the rehearsal. It’s not because there’s one-liners or gags or anything like that, it’s just the accurate depiction of people: their greed, their funny little motivations, their character flaws and the ploys they use to bamboozle and battle each other and come out on top. It’s very, very amusing to an audience.

DOTW: Are there any particular challenges involved in directing Mauritius?

RJ: I have to be honest, this play is not as challenging as Mary Stuart, which was a huge epic and I truly welcomed the refreshing change to go from a full orchestra to a chamber piece. Like a good chamber piece, everything in Mauritius is very carefully nuanced and balanced, and I like that. And I love working with very skillful writing. This play has fight sequences in it, so I’ve called in the very expert Alan Henry to help us with the tussles and tumbles and fisticuffs, pushing and shoving and all of the above. It has some surprising little David Lynch/Tarantino-esque elements to it, which I found extremely interesting.

DOTW: Tell us a bit about the cast.

RJ: For a director, casting is 70-80% of your job. Your job is so much easier when you have a very good, skilled cast, and I believe I’ve been lucky enough to assemble a very fine cast for this play. They’re loving it and they’re very impressed with the script, as am I. We’re enjoying it, which is always a good sign. Coming to work is a pleasure and a delight. I believe when you get the right cast and the chemistry’s right, magic happens, and I’m very pleased with the results.

DOTW: Mauritius has been received very well by international audiences. How do you think NZ audiences will relate to it?

RJ: I think it will appeal to New Zealand audiences as vociferously as it did to international audiences. The play has been produced internationally with many productions in the U.S., of course, as that is Rebeck’s homebase. I think it is just damn fine entertainment. It is very skillfully put together; I think this is a playwright who really knows what she’s doing. As I said she was somewhat unknown to me before coming across this play, but I’ve gone back and read some of her earlier plays and I’m impressed. I wonder how she hasn’t come into our ambit before now because she is a prolific playwright. She knows how to write a play that will grab an audience’s interest. In interviews we often end up talking about what we think about the play, but putting myself in an audience’s perspective, I think people will have a very nice journey in this play: an interesting journey, a fascinating journey, an amusing journey, and they will be surprised and uplifted. Rebeck says that attending theatre is like reading Dickens, people should have something that is profound but also have a ripper of a time.

Mauritius, Circa One, 26 June - 24 July

Mauritius is on at Circa Theatre 26 June to 24 July. Get your tickets by booking online at www.circa.co.nz or by calling the Circa Box Office at (04) 801-7992.

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