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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Theatre Review - The Bells

The Bells
Written and Directed by Theresa Rebeck
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Saturday, January 28, 2pm
Photo by The REP

A gorgeous set, sophisticated lighting, and an enveloping atmospheric aural design can't save The Bells by playwright Theresa Rebeck which proves to be a snoozefest despite a game cast made up of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players.  A tale of a bar owner in the Yukon as he faces the demons of his past, The Bells ultimately is a play that leads to nowhere -- character motivations scarcely are enhanced or developed as its two hours unfold which leads to an ultimately disappointing ending seeing as how the play's conclusion feels like it could've occurred at any point in the story.

At its core, The Bells is a ghost story about Xuefei, a young Chinese man (played by guest artist Austin Ku) who comes to the Yukon in 1899 in search of gold.  He proves successful and in the process meets a young woman named Annette (guest artist Sara Griffin) whose father Mathias (Lee Ernst), owner of the local tavern, is certainly impressed with this foreigner's prospecting abilities.  Tragically, however, Xuefei goes missing soon after meeting Annette, but his presence looms heavy over the community eighteen years later which is when the majority of the play takes place.  Guilt hangs heavy over Mathias from the play's outset as echoes of bells -- a present Xuefei gave Annette -- ring constantly in his mind reminding him of the Chinese visitor who forever changed Mathias' life.

Maybe somewhere there's a good story here, but Rebeck (who also directs this production) drags the whole affair out much too long.  Considering that the character of Mathias barely changes from the play's initial moments to its final scene, there's no reason this play couldn't have been abbreviated to at least a one act production.  Lee Ernst adequately depicts the transgressions of Mathias and the actor has a lot to chew on in terms of emotional backstory, but it all proves disappointing because there's no arc whatsoever for the character.  Ernst's colleagues in the REP also aren't given much to do  as they for the most part depict nondescript townsfolk, but guest artists Austin Ku and Sara Griffin prove to be solid additions to the REP crew with Griffin in particular proving compelling as the strong-willed daughter of Mathias.

Tony-nominated set designer Alexander Dodge manages to create both a believable vast mountain landscape and an intimate, lived-in tavern setting which, along with the beautiful lighting design from Philip S. Rosenberg and an eerie wind-filled sound design by Obadiah Eaves (though the less said about his awkward folk songs that bridge scene changes the better), the under-the-line elements shine in The Bells.  Unfortunately, the play itself is -- ready for this -- unable to get a ringing endorsement from this reviewer.

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