by SOPHIE KERMAN
How do you tell the true story of a man when you don’t know what he looks like, where he came from, or what his real name is, and when a whole team of Royal Canadian Mounted Police had to spend two cold months tracking him down?
You make it up, of course. In this bare-bones ensemble creation, the Sandbox Theatre has gotten to the root of why Albert Johnson, hunted down by the law in 1932, has become legend: a good story plays on our fears and imaginations far more than the truth ever could. A good story stays with us. In the case of Derek Lee Miller, the play’s Project Lead, the tale of the Mad Trapper of Rat River haunted his imagination for nearly twenty years, ever since reading a book – a book which was itself published a whole half-century after Johnson’s death.
A story like this is made for the Sandbox’s creative process, which involves a year of research and seven weeks of development by the ensemble. There is no script: although Miller and Director Wade A. Vaughn take the reins, the cast develops the staged material collectively. It is a setting where the imagination can run wild, and it is a tribute to the company’s smart editorial decisions that the final staged product is so stark and well-crafted. (The ensemble cast includes David Darrow, Hans Hauge, Ryan Hill, Erik Hoover, Brigid Kelley, Peter Ooley, and Heather Stone. Having inhabited this setting for so long, this talented group of actors are clearly the only ones imaginable for each of their roles. The costumes, designed by Mandi Johnson, also deserve a special mention both for their detail and authenticity, and for the actors’ ability to wear them for over an hour under hot stage lights.)
Having read the Wiki before coming to the show, I expected a drier, more historical production. But although the Mounted Police’s speculative digressions are at first a bit challenging to get the hang of, I quickly figured out that the legend on stage is in the process of being written. The minimalist set – clearly meant to represent the white-out conditions of backwoods Canada – resembles nothing more than a blank sheet of paper, slowly filled in by the imaginings of the Mounted Police. Our own creative process is fueled by the Eclectic Ensemble‘s continual live performance of ambient music. Led by Tim Donahue, who received a Jerome Foundation grant for the project, the trio of musicians creates a beautifully eerie backdrop for the production with a large array of instruments (some of which are homemade).
With Halloween come and gone and winter looming on the horizon, the Sandbox Theatre supplies us with a story to tell around the fire. The tale of Albert Johnson – despite his superhuman feats of wilderness survival – is not the account of a historical figure. Because who was Albert Johnson, really? an outlaw? a deserter? or something more sinister? The Sandbox’s gift for storytelling has convinced me that it is far more interesting not to know.