‘In The Territories’ – A Rare Western Comedy (3.5 Stars)

In The Territories” Written by Mark Jabaut; Directed by Jason Schaum; Associate Artistic Director, Staci Skiles Schaum. Produced by Sea Change Theatre Company at The Dane Street Church, 10 Dane St. Beverly, MA. Performances through May 24th.

In this same space a few months back I reviewed a production of the Greek tragedy “Antigone” and talked about the exciting amateur theatre happening in Beverly Massachusetts at the Dane Street Church. The group is The Sea Change Theatre Company and at the helm is the talented and enthusiastic Artistic Director, Jason Schaum and his wife, Associate Artistic Director, Staci Skile Schaum. It seems the company is always up for a challenge as they announce their line up for the next (third) season, they are taking on no less daunting tales than the likes of Hamlet and for the second time, a play written by a playwright who won the secon annual playwrighting contest held by the company.

Their current production: “In The Territories” is by Mark Jabaut, the first winner of the Annual Playwrighting contest, and it’s a rare genre for a stage production, a western comedy set in “the wilds of the Colorado and New Mexico territories”. This show in particular is the very definition of an amateur production in that this is Mark’s first play ever produced. The actors do a wonderful job fleshing out the roles Mark has written despite having limited acting experience themselves. The guiding light that holds it all together though is Jason Schaum, who brings his energy and theatrical sensibilities to the play, adding nice touches along the way (just as he did in Antigone) and adding nuance and depth to these shows.

But it’s not just the Schaums bringing these plays to life. The entire production crew behind the scenes is as much the story of Sea Change as the actors and the material. In the great tradition of amateur stage production they make the most out of what they have to work with. In this case the stage is not huge but much credit has to go to set designer, Paige Hall. While Paige is still a student intern at Montserrat College of Art, she and the staff have managed to design and build a beautiful set that feels as big as the Colorado Rockies, the setting for this play. The fact that it is possibly the biggest landscape in America could have been a distraction in this relatively small space, but it never detracts from the story. It only enhances the charm of this production. Costume design is by Katie Kenna and is spot on, bringing a sense of rugged realism to the characters.

Mr. Jabaut’s story is a classic western “buddy tale” that opens with long-time saddle partners Lazarus and Emmitt carrying what appears to be a corpse on their shoulders. The way they manhandle the body as it crashes to the stage with a thump made me think it was just a dummy. Imagine my surprise when after many minutes “Charlie” started to groan and move. This is just one example of the small details that make Sea Change Theatre shows so surprising and so much fun. Charlie, played nicely by Daniel Allison, is a young inexperienced man who finds himself in a bind after making some bad choices back in town. Because of his mistakes he has dragged Lazarus and Emmitt into danger as well. It’s a story of loyalty and responsibility and the results that come from our decisions in life. Rob Kenna was particularly fun to watch as the talkative sidekick, Lazarus. The actors took the time to study classic western films and Mr. Kenna captured the feel of the comedic sidekick. His performance was reminiscent of Andy Devine or Walter Brennan with the good sense to be less foolish than those actors as his character would eventually prove to be crafty as well as brave and honorable. Jim Maden plays Emmitt, the more stoic but equally loyal partner to Lazarus with an enviable vocabulary that Lazarus would call on frequently and to good comic effect. I was familiar with actor John Melczer from the play Antigone, where he took his small role as a sentry and captured my attention with humor and physicality and he does it again as the slightly deranged killer, Bear. In a high point of the show there is a tense scene in act two between Lazarus and Bear in which both actors get to play their roles to the hilt, showing off the work they put in to their character’s development. Check out this fun evening of western action from the talented, hard-working folks at Sea Change Theatre Company. For more info, go to: http://www.seachangetheatre.com/2013-2014-season/territories/