What the hell was that?

Much like the Northern life it aims to portray, Timber Rabbits starts by moving along very slowly. The lights go down, the narrator, played by Al…

Much like the Northern life it aims to portray, Timber Rabbits starts by moving along very slowly.

The lights go down, the narrator, played by Al McLeod, appears on stage, takes to a chair, and sits there for a good four minutes, vibrating with Parkinson’s before eventually waking with a start and inviting the audience in to “hear a story.”

The “come hear a story” narrative device is often used in television, film and the stage — but admittedly, never as convincingly as in Timber Rabbits.

Around McLeod, the legion hall is bedecked in Klondike-themed accoutrements such as bearskins, clay jugs and caribou skulls. The set itself is a delightfully fragrant menagerie of wood and bark.

During scene changes, the audience is entertained by charming 1930s era recordings, complete with the pops and crackles of a 78 record.

Clutching a bottle of limited edition Timber Rabbits beer, grasping an enormous typewritten program and feasting on “timber rabbit stew” at intermission, the audience truly feels that it has come into a warm cabin to be among friends.

Timber Rabbits, written by Norman Easton and Joseph Graham, is an experience, rather than just a performance.

Which comes in handy later on, much like visiting a relative whose cooking is amazing, but whose stories consistently go nowhere.

The backbone of the show is easily George Maratos as Ben Mueller, a German-born newcomer to Alaska whose Nazi sympathies are flirted with throughout the play.

“I’m an American; my Fuhrer is Roosevelt,” says Mueller upon arrival in Chisana, Alaska.

Later, his eyes glitter as he describes how America could truly become great if only it became endowed with the right “leadership” and “the right approach.”

The play’s true centerpiece is Mueller’s slow descent into insanity at the hands of the isolated Northern winter. When he first appears, Mueller is an immaculate portrayal of stern Hitler-youth esque discipline and optimism — right down to the flammably-greased haircut.

Maratos’ Mueller becomes increasingly dishevelled with each passing scene, and his trim, well-versed dialogue descends into schizophrenic ramblings comically interspersed with unexpected screams of violent German.

Two scenes feature only the wild-eyed Mueller, as he staggers around the cabin half-dressed and deliriously clutching a hunting knife and rifle.

The scene is risky, and could easily have failed without the strong character support that Maratos provides. He gracefully carries the audience along, deftly eliciting both laughter and sympathy for the increasingly demented German trapper.

No Northern-based narrative would be complete without the inclusion of alcohol in some sort of supporting role. In Timber Rabbits, this takes the form of Michael; a hard-drinking, overtly religious bush pilot played by Mike Tribes.

Yet, following Michael’s dramatic first entrance — staggering out of an airplane cockpit in a cascade of empty liquor bottles — the character becomes less and less convincing as either a drunk or a religious zealot. For a raging alcoholic, Michael’s speech and gestures are notably reserved, and his religious incantations seem carefully memorized, rather than uncalculated slips of religious zeal.

Character development in Timber Rabbits could best be described as schizophrenic. Much of the action occurs out of the blue, with no apparent motivations.

Suddenly one character is threatening the genitals of another with a knife. Suddenly another character is heartily sending a compatriot off into the woods to die. A kind, unassuming young Norwegian kid becomes a knife-wielding cannibal.

Conflict seems to be injected, rather than developed, and actors are forced to cope with bringing believability to an impulsive, Jeckyll and Hide-style script.

It’s almost as if the playwright took scenes from My Dinner with Andre, interspersed them with scenes from The Wild Bunch, and neglected to provide any means of linking the two narratives.

Could Pete be motivated to trick Mueller because of anti-Nazi sympathies? Mueller himself; is he truly a Nazi spy, or simply a failed trapper? If so, why does he pretend to be American-born when his German accent is so overt?

Is the whole genital mutilation scene just an excuse for William to loudly ham up the phrase “cut my dick off” in the next scene?

The opening cabin scenes are glorious opportunities to truly probe into the backgrounds and ambitions of Timber Rabbits’ bizarre all-male lineup, and provide some reason to the murder, madness and mutilation that rains in at the end of Act 1.

Yet, the scenes play more like construction site diatribes. The absence of women is praised, the loose backgrounds of the characters are discussed, but nothing else really happens. The gruffness threatens to trump content, with much of the dialogue being lost behind gravelly “Northernese.”

The play dabbles in exploring the historical context of 1930s Alaska.

Characters discuss the possible construction of a road into Alaska; Pete reads about the passing of Germany’s anti-semitic Nuremberg Laws in the newspaper, and Mueller chillingly alludes to the coming war with Germany.

A federal marshall, played by Al McLeod threatens a trapper, telling him that the “little guy like you” is done, and it’s time to make way for “big companies” and “statehood.”

Doug Rutherford and Al Loewen are well-cast as the gruff, unshaven faces of the North. Loewen, as Pete, stands as the stern patriarch of the group, and seems to best embody the woman-fearing Northern male ethos. It’s a shame his character wasn’t given more room to breathe.

Braeden Trefry as Knut stands as the pillar of goodness amid the brutality of the North. He provides a grounding and sanity with which the audience can identify, and it’s easy to sympathize with his entrapment in the self-serving, knife-wielding maelstrom around him. Yet even lovely Knut is not safe, and his innocence is illogically betrayed in the play’s last line; another good character lost to the allure of an adolescent shock device.

Timber Rabbits’ end is swift and unexpected, and it occurs at the point when it seems to be really getting started. The grisly secret of the timber rabbits has come to light, the sinister motivations and backgrounds of the characters are finally clear, and then the audience is left blinking under the house lights, trying to piece it all together.

Sales of Timber Rabbits beer stand only to benefit. The play itself can’t offer any sort of logical resolution, but down about 12 bottles of the tasty promotional brew, and perhaps you too can grasp the “monkeys on typewriters” logic of one of the Yukon’s own homegrown productions.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com

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