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Border Songs at the Firehouse and Claire vg Thomas

by Zoe Bronstein

Border Songs, the story of unlikely hero Brandon Vanderkool and his community in the midst of US/Canada border tensions, drug smuggling and small-town gossip opens at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center this weekend. Jim Lynch’s award-winning novel of the same name is adapted for the stage by Bryan Willis and presented by Bellingham Theatreworks, headed by director Mark Kuntz and producer Steve Lyons.
Brandon (played by Kyle Henick) is an awkward young man who works as a US Border Patrol officer. Almost too tall to be allowed, and dyslexic to the point that it sometimes handicaps his speech, Brandon has lived his life as a quiet and shy observer. He seems content recognizing bird calls, creating wood sculptures (with his artwork covering a good portion of the stage) and pining for Madeline (Linnea Ingalls), the only girl who was ever nice to him in school. Brandon discovers an inexplicable and dangerous talent for catching people trying to cross the border.
Meanwhile, Brandon’s father Norm (Tim Tully), a dairy farmer, has his own problems beyond his overgrown son. His cows are sick. His wife Jeanette (Beth Wallace) is showing signs of dementia. He can’t stand his often stoned Canadian neighbor Wayne (Jim Lortz) who happens to be Madeline’s father and lives on the other side of a shallow ditch that serves as the national border. He is contemplating an offer to allow his land to be used as a shortcut for drug traffickers willing to buy his silence. And he is growing more and more obsessed with the mysterious and attractive masseuse who just moved into the house nearby (Jessica Young).

Border_Songs_1_small Wayne (Jim Lortz) and Norm (Tim Tully) admire Sophie’s (Jessica Young) laundry in Border Songs.

There is a timely undertone of voyeurism and suspicion in Border Songs. Young’s character, Sophie, seems a little too interested in the personal stories of her neighbors, even going so far as to interview them on camera for an unknown purpose. Brandon expresses discomfort at the CCTV cameras popping up all over the border he must protect.
Director Mark Kuntz pulls all the threads together in this stylized story. Featuring a cast of twelve playing almost twice as many characters, the script is seems to be ripped word-for-word from Lynch’s book. Actors transition between dialogue and third-person narration in the same breath, often cutting each other off to finish the line. It took a few minutes to adjust to this style at the top of the show, but once the brain got used to it, the show flowed well enough.
There are a number of endearing performances to be seen in Border Songs. Goofy and charming Kyle Henick carries the show.

Border_Songs_5_small Border Patrolman and avid birdwatcher Brandon (Kyle Henick) waits for a flock of barn swallows to carry him away.

Tim Tully effectively shows off the comedic and tragic sides of Norm. Beth Wallace owns one of the best and more tense moments, when Jeanette is pressured to take a dementia test from a patronizing doctor played by Becky Byrd. Linnea Ingalls is engaging and sweet as the pot-growing girl next door.
The intimate space at the Firehouse is filled with tall, narrow flats and an abstract scrim, all designed by Dipu Gupta, to suggest many locales that characters pass through. This way the space can quickly become the woods, the farm, the Border Patrol office, and more. The sound design by Zack Pierson and Angela Kiser uses bird calls and storm effects throughout, creating an appropriate Pacific Northwest score. Cassandra Leon, with assistance from Corrine Schaible, costumes the show in uniforms and hipster plaid. The lights, designed by Gupta with assistance from Savannah LeCornu, help break up the small Firehouse stage into a multitude of settings.
Border Songs will play at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center June 19-21 and July 3 and 5, all at 7:30pm, and June 22 at 2pm. The show will also perform at the Claire vg Thomas Theatre in Lynden on June 26, June 28, July 10-12 at 7:30pm and June 29 at 2pm. The June 22 performance will include a post-show Q&A with playwright Bryan Willis, and the June 29 performance will feature a similar event with author Jim Lynch. Tickets are $15 and are available at the door (cash only), Katz Coffee & Used Books (Lynden), and at Village Books (800-838-3006). Border Songs runs just over two hours with intermission. For more information, call 360-296-1753, or visit the Bellingham TheatreWorks website at http://www.bellinghamtheatreworks.org.