Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Witness for the Prosecution
Also see Gil's reviews of Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club
Agatha Christie's classic play, based on her own short story, focuses on soft-spoken Leonard Vole who has been arrested for the murder of Emily French. We learn from the witnesses' testimony a few facts that look bad for Vole's defense. French's housekeeper says that the much younger Vole was making French believe he wanted to marry her, just to milk her for her money, even though, unbeknownst to the older woman, he was already married. French also just recently changed her will to make Vole her principal heir. But the biggest obstacle for Vole is his calculating wife Romaine, who is his only alibi for the time when the murder took place. Will she end up as a witness to help defend Vole, or a witness for the prosecution? While Christie's play is a little slow going in the beginning, as multiple characters and plot points are introduced, it quickly turns into a parade of fun character cameo parts when the many witnesses take the stand. It is also chock full of twists and turns that last until the final moments of the play.
Leading DST's more than capable cast is Todd Sloan as Vole's defense attorney, Sir Wilfrid Robarts. You would have no idea that Sloan just took over this role a few days before opening night, based on how well honed his performance is. Sloan's Sir Wilfrid is a calming presence ss he treats Vole with respect and care yet also shows his ability to lash out in the courtroom with his forceful, yet professional, cross examinations of the witnesses. Sloan is giving a very good performance, as is Mary Helen Labadie as the aloof and clever Romaine. She appears to relish playing this devious role, and the joy she brings to Romaine's scheming ways washes over into the audience every time she is on stage. Her facial expressions and German accent are superb. As Vole, Dave Ray brings the amount of confusion one would expect from someone who is accused of murder, yet he also displays a layer of charm, sophistication and suspicion that make us start questioning his innocence.
In smaller roles, Mitch Etter is quite good as the prosecutor, especially in the way he looks when witnesses are testifying, which makes it seem like he is really thinking about their testimony and what his next line of questioning will be. And though I wish his accent were more in line with the wonderful dialect work being done by the rest of the cast, it still amounts to a good portrayal. Kandyce Hughes and Kyle Chavira get meaty cameos as the housekeeper and Inspector, respectively, with each delivering fine performances. Also, Hal Bliss makes a charming soft-spoken Judge who still makes it clear that he runs the courtroom.
Director Van Patten, who did a fine job playing another lawyer involved in the case for the opening weekend shows (that part will be played by Keaton Honaker for the rest of the run), manages well rounded performances from his cast. While there are just a couple of moments when a character or two are a bit over the top in their delivery, it never detracts from the excitement of Christie's cleverly crafted plot. With dialect coach Diane Senffner's assistance, the whole cast achieves an assortment of English accents and characters with ease. Van Patten has opted to stage the entire production in black and white, an homage to film noir and the "black and white" references to guilt and innocence, and it works beautifully, almost as if you're watching a classic film come to life in front of you. While Dori A. Brown's monochromatic set isn't overly elaborate, it does have a stark angle to the back wall which is another element in noir films. Brown's set and Robin Sharp's beautiful period costumes combine with Van Patten's clear headed direction to really make the play pop. However, the few brief musical interjections are a bit of a distraction, in that they are so rare, and the scene change in act three is a little lengthy and loud.
Well written murder mystery plays like this one don't seem to get produced much anymore. It's a shame, as so many hit "procedural" TV shows like "CSI," "NCIS," and "Criminal Minds" owe a huge debt to Christie and other mystery writers who basically created the genre. So, it's a good thing that Desert Stages is not only presenting this classic whodunit but that they have also have an exceptional cast under Van Patten's fine direction to breathe plenty of life into this old chestnut.
For more information on Witness for the Prosecution at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale, that runs through May 17th, 2015, call 480 483-1664 or go to desertstages.org.
Written by Agatha Christie
Cast: (in order of appearance)