On Stage

Border Songs

Of birds, buds and bodies

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When my significant other’s parents arrived in Bellingham last week after driving from Minnesota to Washington via the mountainous highways of Canada, they had to cross an international border to get here.

After a mild snafu at the Lynden crossing—it was discovered they’d both neglected to sign their passports, and they were reprimanded, but not turned away from entering their country of origin—they arrived back in the United States without further incident.

The experience must’ve stuck with them, because after mentioning I’d be going to see a play called Border Songs the night after they arrived, both parental units agreed the subject matter was intriguing. After ironing out the details—the play wasn’t a musical, I explained, but was a story about a quirky border patrolman named Brandon with a knack for finding both birds and buds—we secured tickets for the show.

As we settled in to our front-row seats at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center to view the first production by the newly formed Bellingham TheatreWorks, director Mark Kuntz filled the audience in on the collective’s aim: to focus on, and share, local works with subject matters of local interest.

Border Songs more than fits the bill. In addition to being based on regional author Jim Lynch’s 2009 book of the same name, and being adapted for the stage by Olympia-based playwright Bryan Willis,  the setting for the story couldn’t be much closer to home—the border in our own backyard.

At first, Brandon Vanderkool—played with endearing earnestness and believability by WWU grad Kyle Henick, who’s reprising the role he first tackled at Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre—seems like an unlikely choice for a new border patrol hire. He’s nearly seven feet tall, has dyslexia, gets flustered easily, has an unerring ear when it comes to identifying birds, and doesn’t seem to have the stomach for hauling in those caught transporting both buds and “bodies” (illegal immigrants) over the United States/Canada border.

The thing is, it’s Brandon’s oddities that make him a crackerjack border patrol agent. He’s so attuned to the natural world that when he senses a disruption in it, it’s not long afterward that he’s hauling in a van full of illegals or gym bags stuffed full of marijuana.

I’ve read Lynch’s book, so I was already aware of the way Brandon’s new job affects the rest of the players in the story. This includes his father, Norm (Tim Tully), who’s struggling to keep his cattle farm going without the help of his son, and his mother Jeanette (Beth Wallace), who must learn to adapt to a world that’s becoming increasingly less clear to her. Meanwhile, Madeline (Linnea Ingalls), a childhood crush who’s now growing the green stuff, must try to deflect Brendan’s attentions before he realizes she’s a link to an unsavory part of his job.

Altogether, the cast of 10 ably portrayed more than 20 characters, with additional roles up as drug smugglers, massage therapists, border dwellers, EPA agents, drug party divas, smuggling kingpins and more. 

When all was said and done, what surprised me the most about the stage adaptation of Border Songs was how funny it was. While drawing attention to the serious subject matter of life lived on a border that criminals like to cross—not to mention issues of dementia, job loss and failing farms—the play also included one of the funniest sex scenes I’ve ever seen, physical comedy galore, and oddball characters who aren’t afraid to let their freak flags fly.

Our visitors from Minnesota agreed that the play was a delight, and when I mentioned it would also be playing in Lynden the following week, said they were considering returning to the scene of their “harrowing” border crossing before leaving town.

And although they’ll be driving back to the Midwest without entering Canada, they assured us they’ve signed their passports and can cross the border at any time.

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