Review – In Skagway – KTR Productions at Arcola Theatre


I find the idea of seeing a new play with an all-female cast pretty exciting, the more so for being set in Alaska, a state frequently known (in America) for the huge male skew of its population. This could be a play in which the effects of being a hugely in demand minority – a situation which shits the balance of power – can be addressed directly! A play in which women can talk to each other about things that only women have to deal with! And being set during the gold rush era made In Skagway even more appetizing – I’d read a lot about the history of that period while living in Seattle, and the experience of women seemed like a ripe topic for dramatic exploration.

And then the play started and I had the sudden feeling that the writer had what she thought was a great idea – a play about Frankie (Angeline Ball), a showgirl who’s had a stroke – and just basically ran with it without bothering to do any more historical research than a quick trip through Wikipedia. The characters spoke in modern language, had modern morals, and seemed to have only been dipped in the late Victorian era. Where did this imaginary female prospector with her Indian lover come from? Given how few women made it to Alaska, it was clear to me that T-Belle (Kathy Rose O’Brian), “fresh from the claim,” was purely a figment of Karen Ardiff’s imagination. I could buy Frankie’s story – a music hall star who comes to Alaska to make some easy money (I made this back story up, it was not explained) – but how in the world did an Irish emigre wind up talking like she was from California? The whole thing snapped the tethers of believability from the very beginning: as we say in America, it jumped the shark and long before we ever got in the boat.

There were some good things about this show, though. Despite the horrible cognitive dissonances caused by the characters, the acting was uniformly engaging, and by the time we got to the scene where bad girl “Nelly the Pig” (Natasha Starkey) breaks into Frankie’s cabin, I was actually quite caught up in what was going to happen when an amoral ball of “looking out for number one” confronted her supposed friend, now crippled. This scene also allowed Frankie to start narrating what was going on in her perception of events as a person who’d had a stroke, which I thought was a bit oversimplified from what actual stroke victims perceive (the ones I’ve known have actually had a lot of their thought processes in good place despite loss of speaking capability), especially in regards to her inability to see the danger of what was happening around her. So again, I’ve got issues with how the writer handled the issues, and wonder to what extent she’s researched how strokes affect people – it felt to me like she wrote Frankie as she wanted her to be, not as the stroke would have made her, and this is against my theory of what makes compelling theater – characters who seems so real that THEY determine what happens to them. Ultimately, Frankie is a victim of bad writing, not a debilitating illness or bad life decisions. And to really care about her and the other women, she needs to have more reality than she was given.

That said, as acted, Ball did a good job of making Frankie a believable stroke victim; and I loved the way lighting designer Katharine Williams mirrored Frankie’s loss of self in the flickering of the Northern Lights through the clapboard slats of the cabin. But these were just a few nice touches in what was otherwise a grinding evening (that, by the way, still failed the Bechdel test as every one of the women winds up talking rather too much about men). Fortunately, it was about ninety minutes through with no interval, but it was still not my taste at all.

(This review is for a performance which took place on February 7th, 2014. It continues through March 1st. For a sharper review, please see Nick’s writeup.)

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10 Responses to “Review – In Skagway – KTR Productions at Arcola Theatre”

  1. psipsinasays Says:

    Hello! Thinking of popping along. I know your review was mixed but would you recommend?

  2. Katie Wright Says:

    Karen Ardiff researched this play,that was originally a book for a number of years!Angeline Ball’s accent is peppered with American as she is trying to assimilate it in parts of the play..(she plays an actress after all.Being from Ireland myself I didn’t hear her slip into any other accent ,except when required.She maintained her Dublin(north side accent) as dictated and played throughout!I saw this play on it’s first preview and thought it to be wonderful!It is enriching and beautifully acted by all the cast.It is precise in it’s portrayal of women trapped in the middle of nowhere,were historically correct,men were considered superior and therefore relied upon.
    Having read your review I understand that everyone is entitled to their opinion.You clearly spent a lot of time and energy writing such a negative piece.My advice would be to perhaps put your writing skills to test and write a play that could equal if not super cede the one you so clearly disliked!
    I would recommend this play.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Hi, Katie,

      Being from Seattle, one of the homes of the Alaskan gold rush, I actually have read quite a bit of historical info about this time and my criticism is very much based on reality of women’s lives of this era. I never once heard Angeline sound at all Irish, though kudos to her for mastering modern American English – the idiom in which the American speaking characters spoke. However, emigrants to America held on to their accents for their whole lives (as one actress showed), and while Frankie may have been an actress, I would imagine at the least that her internal voice would have stayed Irish. I also don’t think that getting accents right was ever really her forte, like modern trained actors do.

      Plays take a lot of time to write and not everyone gets them right; even a good playwright may flop outside of their comfort zone. Conor McPherson is great but his play The Veil, set in a pseudo-19th century, was a bomb; whereas his The Weir is pretty much perfect. I’d like to write a play, but I might get one done all year; no doubt the advice I will get when it is finished is stick to writing reviews, where I have years and years of experience. And, really, my job is to be a critic, not to be a playwright; I don’t need to “write a better play” than one I don’t like, because my job is to give my audience an informed opinion they can refer to when making their own decisions about whether or not to see something – not to write another bad play!

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  4. Lizzy Says:

    Was this a time of truly empowered women or are you just wanting it to be to fit your negative narrative?

    Aside from moving to Alaska in search of a better life, living as a all-female threesome and Mae blossoming from a seemingly confused emigrant to a conscientious woman raising a child on her own whilst looking after a disabled friend, how much more can they do to shift the power in their favour?

    The mere mention of men discredits their actions for you?

    I may have misinterpreted but I believe T-Belle was Mae’s daughter so not an Irish emigre but a first generation Alaskan?

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I really doubt T-belle was a first generation Alaskan – although she would have been American. Just being in a state for a few months doesn’t make you an Arizonan, Alaskan, Californian, or what have you.

      My guess is the group moved to Alaska for some quick money, not for a better life.

      And for me, the play was way too much about (invisible) men and not very much about women looking after each other. They women all used each other and it was pretty damned ugly. Mae wasn’t conscientious, she was deluded and pretty damned creepy to boot.

  5. Civilian Theatre Says:

    As a general rule critics critique, writers write and actors act. When these lines get blurred who knows what kind of play we will end up with…

    …I also saw In Skagway and whilst I try to be constructive in my opinons I also have to agree with Webcowgirl’s take on the play. If you are in a position of charging £15/ticket (whether or not it is the economics of fringe theatre that are forcing your hand), you have to appreciate that reviews are going to be as stringent as they would be for the National or the Donmar where you can pick up tickets at the same price.

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