BWW Reviews: Hurry to Witness WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION at the Fulton
Mystery and noir film lovers, as well as Marlene Dietrich fans, know the movie version of Agatha Christie's WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION well, sometimes by heart. Dietrich's turn at playing Romaine Vole, while it may not be definitive, is certainly the standard in many people's minds.
While Christie's "The Mousetrap" and "Ten Little Indians" show up on stage regularly ("The Mousetrap" with such ubiquity in schools and community theatre that it seems as if every person in America must have seen it twice, given the number of seats available since its inception), the live stage WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is far less commonly seen. That's a disappointment, especially when a production is as fine as Charles Abbott's for Fulton Theatre in Lancaster. (Equally disappointing was that an Agatha Christie play did not draw a sold-out house for opening night. Those who missed it must correct their deficit immediately.)
Despite three acts and the concomitant length of the show, this production is every bit as fast-paced as the modern television equivalents such as "Law and Order" or, if one prefers, the BBC's "Rumpole of the Bailey" and "Law and Order: UK". Jeff Award winner and Fulton veteran David Girolmo gives an inspired performance as the bristly barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a man whose passions are a good cigar and a stiff drink, and whose dislikes are conniving women and his usual opponent, Crown Prosecutor Myles (Fulton veteran and Philadelphia theater mainstay Greg Wood, in a charming turn in which he carefully displays every single characteristic that his opponent professes to despise about him).
Peter Simon Hilton, a Fulton novice but no stranger to Lancaster, to Chuck Abbott, or to Fulton artistic director Marc Robin, is not only a gifted actor but perfectly cast as the unemployed, more-or-less married, charmer of older women, Leonard Vole, one of Christie's most elaborately developed male characters. Vole is good-looking, affable, painfully sincere – the picture of the wrongly accused. In Hilton's portrayal, he also has a remarkable resemblance to Roger Moore as Simon Templar in the 1960's television series "The Saint", a thought that struck my guest as well as myself. It's a look that fits the character, a former military man turned mechanic and then unemployed –and just perhaps a grifter and murderer, or, according to Sir Wilfred, perhaps not.
Amanda Edwards, however, in Dietrich's role as Romaine Vole, bears the weight of the most complex performance in this show, and she is well up to the task. Although realizing that, for those who know the movie, she's competing just slightly with La Belle Dietrich, she finds the part and its complications a great deal of fun. "I knew there was a lot of humor in this play before I did it," she explains, "but I didn't realize how much!" Her performance reflects much of that humor, despite Romaine's astonishing and unexpected display at the time of the trial. Edwards' emotional range is as broad as her comic timing is apt, both being required for making Romaine Vole's part in this murder mystery work.
The comedy in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is far more pronounced than in her other works, and it is in her smaller parts that much of the greatest humor emerges. BrIan Martin, who, unsurprisingly, is a veteran actor of Mr. Paravicini in "The Mousetrap," brings his A-game to police surgeon Dr. Wyatt and to laboratory assistant Mr. Clegg as witnesses at Leonard Vole's trial. He infuses Wyatt with elements of John Cleese's pompous "Monty Python" Cabinet ministers, and Clegg with equally Pythonesque silliness, although not a dreadfully silly walk. According to Martin, who has experience in the subject, "Christie pops in these characters who take your mind off some of the facts. They're great distractions and it really is part of the charm of her plays."
Hilton adds, "This show is very interesting when you put it up against the movie – or Christie's novels. Unlike the novels it has last-minute twists. The audience loves that." Indeed, those audience members who may be closely familiar with Christie's novels, in which the end is usually the unveiling and apprehension of the villain, will (if they haven't seen the classic film) be even more surprised by the last-minute twists here than they may have been with the endings of "The Mousetrap" or of "Ten Little Indians" if they have seen them.
If any of the barristers in the back of the courtroom look familiar to local audiences, it may be because these non-Equity players are Lancaster County attorneys finally getting their chance to try on the robes and horsehair wigs of the Old Bailey. These back-benchers have no lines, but now have a theatrical credit to add to their professional resumes.
One possible quarrel with the direction of the play may be the "freeze-framing" of some scenes and acts – the scenes emerge with the actors frozen in place, beginning motion and speech when lights are turned on, or with another similar action, and end with actors again freezing their motion prior to the end of the scene or the curtain. This seems decidedly awkward at several moments during the performance and feels inconsistently handled. One other issue: Beth Alison's part at the end is small, but it feels as if her presence should be stronger; she pales in comparison to Edwards' domination of the stage at that moment, making Allison's chemistry with other actors on stage seem weak. Given the crucial part Allison plays in shaping the conclusion, the audience needs to have a stronger sense of her in order to understand why any other characters care about her. However, overall, this is a truly enjoyable production of one of the great law procedural mysteries, and a more than suitable homage to the Queen of Mystery herself.
This production of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION must be witnessed before it closes. It's well worth the length, even if you know the movie already; on stage, it's a totally different creation. At Fulton Theatre through November 4. For tickets, call (717) 397-7425 or visit www.fultontheatre.org.
Photo credit: Fulton Theatre