The John Astin Theatre presented their second weekend of Mauritius at the Merrick Barn. Directed by James Glossman, a lecturer in the Theatre Arts & Studies program, the show centered around two denominations of postage stamps issued in 1847 by British Mauritius, then a colony off the southeast coast of Africa.
The one penny and the two pence are among the rarest stamps in the world — the play refers to them as the “crown jewels of philately,” the fancy word for collecting postage stamps — because next to a profile of Queen Victoria, they read “Post Office” instead of “Post Paid.”
As Dennis (played by junior Sebastian Durfee) remarks, “it’s the errors that make them valuable. That’s kind of my theory on people.”
Indeed, on their quest to obtain the stamps, Dennis and the other characters of Mauritius demonstrate that they are each far from perfect.
When their mother dies, half-sisters Mary and Jackie (junior Sinclaire Schaefer and senior Brenda Quesada, respectively) each lay claim to the stamp collection they inherit. Mary argues that the stamps are hers to keep because they belonged to her grandfather (not Jackie’s), who maintained an “extensive correspondence” with prospective buyer President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Jackie, on the other hand, reasons that the stamps are hers to sell because she spent years caring for their dying mother. She visits a shop owned by the aptly named philatelist Philip (junior Usman Enam). When she stands at his desk, desperately urging him to inspect her heirlooms, he picks his nose. He finally stops ignoring her, only to call her stamps frauds; he won’t even take a closer look unless she forks over $2,000.
Dennis, who’s been in the corner silently reading a newspaper (most likely not The News-Letter), offers to inspect Jackie’s stamps. Philip insists Dennis is unqualified — “an acquaintance at best.” For a moment, Dennis seems particularly interested in Jackie’s stamps, but then he has a change of heart and tells her to go home.
In a subsequent scene at a bar, Dennis tells wealthy and impassioned philatelist Sterling (sophomore Sebastian Fernandez) that he knows a girl with an extremely desirable collection. Sterling doesn’t immediately trust him.
“How much money is it worth to you, Dennis, to risk ... what will befall a person like you, stepping onto the highwire of complete bullshit that just came out of your mouth?” he asks.
Eventually, Sterling accepts that Dennis is telling the truth. Dennis tells him that “this girl is a lamb,” believing that the two can swindle Jackie out of her money’s worth because she isn’t a stamp connoisseur.
Next, Dennis shows up at Mary and Jackie’s house. The ensuing conversation is hilarious. When Mary tells him how their mother died, Dennis says, “That’s just tough.”
“Thank you,” Mary says, enamored with Dennis.
Later, Jackie lights a cigarette, sitting beside the stamps. Mary expresses her annoyance.
“Why? Because it’s bad for them to know that I smoke?” Jackie asks.
Schaefer is a notably talented actor, evoking Jackie’s poise and volatility with mastery. But her skills cannot hide the frequent and unjustified emotional leaps playwright Theresa Rebeck puts her characters through during fight scenes. Out of nowhere, Jackie tells Mary she’s been contemplating tying a plastic bag around the latter’s neck. She then details her manic ambitions.
“I’m going to stab myself in the chest with a pair of really sharp scissors, and then I’m going to put those two tiny tiny slips of paper inside my body, right where my heart is supposed to be. And then I’m going to grow a pair of wings, big, blue and green scaly wings,” she says. “I’m going to go somewhere where they like tall girls with bug wings. And then I’m going to lay in the sun and have a margarita.”
After the intermission, however, the dialogue becomes more believable. Jackie and Dennis have great banter; he condescendingly tells her commerce is a nuanced thing, to which she replies, “Most things in life are.”
Another highlight is Jackie and Sterling’s negotiations; she holds her ground, proving that he’s clearly underestimated her.
Just when you think Jackie is about to make millions, Phil and Mary walk in, declaring that the stamps are forgeries. Of course, it’s just a scam for them to get their hands on the stamps; Phil holds a grudge against Sterling for something that happened in the past. We never learn what this inciting incident was.
Rebeck fails to adequately explore the past overall; her characters are thus rendered imperfectly. Luckily the cast’s acting is phenomenal, which makes up for the shortcomings of Rebeck’s script.
Director James Glossman praised the cast’s acting in an email to The News-Letter.
“[The] easy back-and-forth between the actors ... along with their mutual trust and willingness to have fun in the room based on very solid and extensive prep work, has made all the difference,” he wrote.
Quesada discussed the theme of the past in an interview with The News-Letter.
“All the characters are trying to forget about their past experiences or holding them against each other,” she said.
Schaefer addressed how the past influences Jackie specifically.
“The show reflects her desperation to ‘come back to life’ after having her identity and several years of her life stripped by a horrible situation,” she said. “As she tries to erase the past, she figures out, as we all do, that that’s not possible. All she can do is to trust herself and make the best out of the worst.”
Jackie perches atop a filing cabinet, threatening to burn the entire collection. The characters end up choking, hitting and punching each other; eventually Phil and Mary run off with the stamps. Dennis reveals to Jackie, however, that he managed to steal one stamp from the collection: an Inverted Jenny, in which an airplane is printed upside-down. The two agree to grab a beachside drink, hinting at future negotiations.
Durfee, who artfully captured Dennis’ quirks and charisma, said he enjoyed playing the conniving character.
Enam echoed Durfee’s sentiments, adding that while Philip was a jerk, he made sure to not give a one-dimensional performance.
“While this was challenging at first, I slowly started becoming the character rather than painting a picture of a jerk,” he said. “It really brought actual value to the two stamps because they held so much value in each of our eyes.”
Quesada shared her experiences playing Mary.
“It can be difficult to show to the audience that you, as the character, fully believe that you are righteous in pursuing your goals through the play,” she said.
Durfee called morality the theme of the play.
“Every character believes they’re in the right,” he said. “To a certain extent, they all are, which makes the question of ‘who’s good, and who’s evil?’ all the more impossible to really answer.”
This article would be remiss without commending Production Designer Michael Vincent, Stage Manager Emmie Cronin, Poster Designer Martin Rietveld and Production Assistant Zack Ellis.