Tracking the real Albert Johnson

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 12/00) - After two years of refining scripts, workshops with actors and a staged reading, the full production of the new Northern play, Arctic Circle War, is in the final stages.

The dramatic version of the story of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, will be presented at NACC by Stuck in the Snowbank Theatre, May 31-June 3.

Director Ben Nind, who co-authored the play with Brian Lewis and John Agnew, says he's opted for a very intense rehearsal period of three weeks.

"The timelines are very short," he says.

"Where we might have spent six to eight weeks in rehearsals, we're spending three weeks. I wanted (the rehearsal) to reflect the intensity that the story has. It's an extremely intense story."

For those who don't know the story, Albert Johnson, dubbed the Mad Trapper, settled in an isolated area near Aklavik in 1931.

Obstinate and anti-social, Johnson quickly enraged his fellow Northerners, setting off a series of events -- including a full-fledged manhunt after he shot a police officer -- which ended on the Yukon's Eagle River.

"I would describe Albert Johnson as an isolated anarchist who definitely didn't want to play by the rules," says actor Murray Utas, who is best known for his part in another Northern play, Bush Pilot.

Utas tackles the role of the controversial and mysterious anti-hero.

"By some token, he was exercising his human right to be left alone. Though I don't defend his action, which was legally wrong," says Utas.

"I think, also, what's fascinating about Albert Johnson and about this play is that it's the first time ever that it's done in a real way, not a Hollywood way. (Charles Bronson acted in the Hollywood version years ago.)

"It's the first time Johnson has been given really, truly a voice for his perception of the world. No one has ever allowed for the possibility to go into the thinking of Johnson," adds Nind.

The director's rehearsal strategy is intended to firmly place the actors in Johnson's 1930s world.

On the second day of rehearsal, the four actors -- Utas, George Szilagyi, Keath Thome and Yellowknifer Heather Murdoch -- who plays various people involved in the manhunt -- headed for the bush near Dettah.

"The chase in the woods, yes, the live hide and seek ... I wanted the actors to be put in a real element, in the bush. Place them in the situation of trying to find someone, as well as Johnson (Utas) being chased when he wasn't knowledgable with the area," says Nind

The exercise uncovered some crucial inside information for the actors.

Given a headstart by the others, Utas remembered the research he did as he ran.

"I remembered how clever he was. They thought he was miles and miles ahead of them when, in fact, he was parallel to them. I went into the first bush I found and kneeled down."

Utas stayed put for an hour while trying to find out where his pursuers were located.

"Within a couple of minutes, my heart was beating. I thought, 'Yes! I'm really in this chase.'"

Utas not only circled his pursuers, he eventually got the better of them. At the end of the exercise, he understood what it meant to be in an unfamiliar environment.

"I had to rely on sense and instinct," he says.

Szilagyi said after a period of time in the bush he felt incredibly frustration -- a seed of anger -- because he assumed the group would easily locate their prey.

Utas says he could feel their frustration.

"And I became braver," he says.

Music for the play has been composed by Yellowknifer Gaston Saravanja. The staging of Arctic Circle War was made possible with the support of almost 20 local business, a Canada Council for the Arts grant.

NACC took on the role of co-producer.

Tickets are available at the Birchwood Gallery.