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Marin Ireland and Christopher Innvar in The Bells
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
If you peruse the program before The Bells begins and read Theresa Rebeck's bio, you'll notice it mentions that the playwright received a PhD in Victorian melodrama. Hmm, you may think, why this reference to a somewhat recherché past accomplishment?

If you then start riffling through the rest of the program for prefatory material on the work that's about to entertain you, you'll find the following quote from the dramatist: "There's a wide misunderstanding that, during the 19th century, the form of melodrama presented audiences with depleted or second-rate story telling. In fact, melodrama's emphasis on muscular plots, spectacle, and the extremities of human experience presented a kind of theater which could veer wildly between expressionism and psychodrama. With the support of a more richly imagined language and psychology, melodrama becomes epic."

Thus does the cat slink out of the bag. The prolific Rebeck, whose most familiar plays are The Butterfly Collection and Omnium Gatherum (the latter written in collaboration with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros), decided that she'd examined enough Victorian melodramas and that the time had come to write her own. In doing so, she could deploy the kind of imagined language and psychology without which the plays that so influenced Charles Dickens are only meaningful today as the basis for satirical send-ups. Clearly, Rebeck was keen to write a contemporary melodrama that -- using the conventions of a bygone period -- approaches the epic.

Did she do it? In her tale, set in the Yukon in both the years 1917 and 1899, she introduces red-bearded Mathias (Ted Marcoux), a saloon and goods store proprietor, and his daughter Annette (Marin Ireland). The backwoods pair encounter black-bearded Baptiste Carbonneau (Christopher Innvar), a handsome but tuckered-out bounty hunter. This French-Canadian has come to the bereft mining town in search of a Chinese man called XuiFei (Pun Bandhu), who disappeared 18 years before. The audience, however, has already seen the missing man; he presented his somber self at the play's outset and made the ultra-meaningful statement, "I never knew the world could be so cold."

Rebeck would have us take XuiFei's comment as her tip-off to the philosophy of life that she's about to propound. Much stage snow falls on Eugene Lee's impressionistic and evocative set, with its carved-wood saloon. Lighting designer Frances Aronson and sound designer Darron L. West do their best to keep the night deep blue and windy. As the old melodramatic cry goes, it's not a fit night out for man nor beast.

Also shivering in the 23-hours-dark arctic zone are three local drunks who dream of gold that's still hidden in them thar snow-covered hills. They're Sally (Fiona Gallagher), Jim (Paul Butler), and Charlie (Michael McCarty). Extremely scruffy in rags provided by costumer Jennifer von Mayrhauser, these folks are in the habit of avoiding the cold by patronizing Mathias's establishment, where they habitually help themselves to the spirits kept under the counter. Mathias is lax about their fast-fingered thirst-quenching, but Annette, who develops a soft spot in her otherwise steeled heart for Carbonneau, isn't.

In time, another reason for Mathias's hospitality threatens to emerge. It becomes pressing as the Chinese ghost stalks the 1917 time frame and also appears as his live self in 1899, arriving in a younger, bustling town and enchanting the young Annette with a pair of silver bells that, years later, no one can get to chime. The initially easy-going Mathias grows so agitated by the recurring visits of the ghost and Carbonneau's investigation that the audience begins to suspect something's afoot with him.

That's as much plot as will be outlined here, in part because not much more is needed for any theatergoer to see that Rebeck is heading toward a Macbeth-like epic about the wages of guilt. As a matter of fact, the audience may get there long before the author does. In combining some of the conventions of Victorian melodrama with those of American melodrama -- the Yukon setting, for instance -- Rebeck wants to take the genres' strong underpinnings and make something more of them. Unfortunately, she doesn't succeed.

She's got man's inhumanity to man on her mind, as the Victorian melodramatists did when they depicted the oppressed lower classes struggling against upper-class villains; but Rebeck doesn't transcend the genre. Instead, while humanizing the figures, she simply stalls her revelations. Sending the characters out into the cold repeatedly and eventually having more than one ghost roam the tundra (or whatever it is), she has contrived a portentous play that falls short of an epic accounting of misdeeds while also discarding the fun of melodrama.

Though the results of Rebeck's experiment are disappointing, the actors -- whom Emily Mann directs with zest -- wholeheartedly mine the material for whatever character gold lies thar. Marcoux's Mathias is increasingly wild-eyed, a man tormented by unforgiving memory. Ireland, admirable only weeks ago in Sabina, is feisty, and Innvar's Baptiste is a vulnerable hunk. Bandhu haunts the stage with the right kind of gravity. As the dirty-faced layabouts, Gallagher, McCarty, and Butler (playing a man who may know more than he's saying) are up to the requirements. They ring bells even if the play doesn't.

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