Theresa Recbeck’s 2005 play The Bells is an adaptation of a Victorian melodrama about a European innkeeper named Matthias racked with guilt over a murder he committed fifteen years ago. Rebeck’s version, particularly in the hands of Seattle’s Strawberry Theatre Workshop, is a quite compelling and much grittier story of stragglers left over from the Alaskan Gold Rush of the late 1800s and the bounty hunter sent to solve the twenty-year-old murder of a Chinese prospector.
It is hard to review the play without giving too much away: It is a ghost story, a man-versus-nature tale, and murder mystery in one. In Rebeck’s version, the Yukon wilderness becomes a character itself. Townspeople variously describe the miles and miles of mountains and snow as horrible, evil, beautiful and splendid, but what the landscape always seem to be is lonely. This desolation is manifested artfully by Montana Tippett’s scenic and Evan Mosher’s sound designs. One half of the stage is a sea of white fabric covering different levels of risers; the other half is the spare, utilitarian interior of a tavern. Snow-covered mountain peaks loom on the back wall. Mosher’s soundscape is at once frightening and intriguing. Rebeck’s Matthias, played expertly by Peter Crook, is haunted by the memory of the Chinaman’s hand bells, the sound of which are often accompanied by a pervasive, howling wind. At other times, the bellowing of wild animals blends with Asian string instruments, nicely reflecting and enhancing the battling motifs of the play.
Each of the actors, furthermore, does an excellent job in his/her role. If you like character-driven yet expressionistic drama, I recommend this play.
The Bells. By Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Julie Beckman. Strawberry Theatre Workshop at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave, Seattle. January 26 – February 18, 2012. Tickets and information at www.strawshop.org or www.brownpapertickets.com.