Sandbox Theatre’s latest ensemble-created production, The Mad Trapper of Rat River, is the kind of show I always go to the theater hoping I’ll see. Maybe I shouldn’t be so fond of it, because it’s also the kind of theater that puts a playwright out of a job. But when a production is this intriguing and fun to watch, it’s hard to resist giving in to its charms.
“I’m sure the Mounties will give you a lovely funeral.”
I probably shouldn’t worry so much and just go with it. It’s hard to do what Sandbox Theatre does in The Mad Trapper of Rat River. Many companies try, many fall short. Even Sandbox can struggle sometimes. This time out however, Sandbox gets everything right. Director Wade Vaughan and project lead Derek Lee Miller have all the elements of the production working in perfect unison. It’s a kick to watch something this complex run so smoothly.
“There’s no explaining it. No reason. It’s just a thing that happened.”
There really was a Mad Trapper of Rat River. Back in the winter of 1932, Albert Johnson stymied the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, leading them on a deadly chase through the cold unforgiving wilderness for two months before being taken out in a final gun battle. It took nine bullets to kill him.
“The blood froze before it hit the ground.”
Taking this outline as their starting point, the Sandbox artists create a story that is part crime drama, part legend, part philosophical mystery, all parts entertaining. We never get to see Albert Johnson. He is always “out there” somewhere, just out of sight, but never out of firing range, which a couple of Mounties will discover too late. While out on the hunt, the search party wonders about the man they are chasing, and what brought him to this point. Not surprisingly, they begin to think he must be, in some ways, just like each of them.
“I never met a man that couldn’t be reasoned with, once you understand him.”
Karl Gardlund (David Darrow) imagines Johnson to be like those crazy Americans down south of the Canadian border, obsessed with their guns and recreating a sense of the Wild West and adventure in modern times. Gardlund’s version of Johnson is a reckless bank robber ground down by his time in prison.
“You better hit what you aim at!”
Joe Verville (Hans Hauge), a shell-shocked former sniper who can’t bring himself to carry or fire a gun anymore, imagines Johnson is a soldier driven mad by the horrors of war. Unfortunately, the war also turned this Albert Johnson into a talented marksman.
“The Devil himself never imagined such horrors.”
Sergeant R.F. Riddell (Erik Hoover) is a tracker who has maybe spent a little too much time in the woods. He imagines Johnson to be a man taken over by the demons of the forest, using him as their puppet to carry out a deadly game.
“It infects a man’s mind. Hollows him out, and wears him like a suit.”
These three possible scenarios of Johnson’s life are interwoven throughout the manhunt, each reflecting and affecting the hunter who spins the tale as much as it does the man for whom they search. Surrounding these narratives is the story of the actual hunt itself, as Johnson continues to outrun, outgun and outwit Constable Edgar “Spike” Millen (Peter Ooley) and his team (Darrow, Hauge, Hoover, Brigid Kelley and Heather Stone). The Mounties even get an assist from the larger-than-life war pilot Wilfred “Wop” May (Ryan Hill), the man who shot down the infamous Red Baron (and isn’t shy about telling the story).
“He lived impossibly, and he died impossibly.”
Three other vital performers helping to tell the story are sound composer Tim Donahue, Charlie Henrikson and John Vance, who comprise the Eclectic Ensemble. They perform an evocative live musical soundtrack that weaves alongside and inside the story so closely that it’s almost like having an eighth actor in the cast. That is, if said actor was actually three people playing percussion, keyboard, stringed instruments and a variety of suspended bottles, wine glasses and random pieces of metal. The music is so embedded in the narrative, you constantly have to remind yourself there’s a band just off to the left (in full view, in white shirts) playing it live. They’re obvious and invisible at the same time. It’s freaky.
“As long as I’m in charge, no one’s gonna die.”
Also freaky, the ridiculous (yet entirely effective) simplicity of the production design. The set (by Hill and Miller) is essentially just one massive white plastic sheet, sloping down from the ceiling all the way across the stage floor to just a couple of feet from the the audience. The cast creates all kinds of environments against this simple backdrop, aided by Heidi Eckwall’s lighting design which throws impressive shadows at key moments. Mandi Johnson’s costume design has the whole team bundled up in a vast array of winter gear that helps the performers convey the cold (even though the actors must be sweating buckets under all those layers and stage lights).
“If a man had any last words, they would go here…”
A ramshackle wooden doorway flies apart in an explosion early on in the story, and the random pieces of the fallen door all turn out to be shaped like rifles and handguns—instantly arming the search party. The actors take turns thwacking their wooden guns against the stage floor to simulate the crack of gunshots with a precision and volume that is unsettling (but in all the right ways). And when the actors turn their guns on the audience, the intensity of their commitment to their imaginary weapons makes you more than a little nervous when they point that wooden gun at you. Sure, you should know better, but your imagination just can’t help playing along.
“Are you there, Mr. Johnson?”
It seems incongruous to say that a good old-fashioned tale of adventure is also a meditation on the human spirit, but that’s the kind of thing Sandbox Theatre does. The Mad Trapper of Rat River gives you food for thought, but also is just a hell of a lot of fun. What more do you need from a night at the theater? Very highly recommended.