BWW Reviews: Deserts Stages' WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION Is a Mystery In Itself!
Who murdered Emily French?
As the invisible curtain fell on Desert Stages Theatre's nearly-three-hour staging of Witness for the Prosecution and the case's surprise solution was revealed, I pondered how director Jere Van Patten had added another layer of mystery to this production of Agatha Christie's classic ~ specifically, the mystery as to his vision for the play. What is supposed to be riveting and spell-binding drama was ~ for what reason? ~ converted to melodrama with hints of farce.
At the outset, I admired Van Patten's imaginative approach to coloring everything and everybody on stage in black and white. Clever, indeed, his intentional homage to film noir! So, now with a smartly conceived stage noir effect, the potential apparently existed to deliver on his promise.
Alas, a zig! Perhaps, his was an irresistible urge to lampoon the tale, but, methinks, whatever his intention, it came at the expense of the drama.
With a couple of notable exceptions, the stage is populated with over-the-top, spoofy performances that convey caricatures rather than compelling characters, that distract from and degrade the tension normally associated with this work.
Is the director channeling Mel Brooks? Are we being treated to Witness as comic melodrama? Shades of the perils of Pauline glimmer as the suspect's wife (Mary Helen Labadie) chews what there is of the scenery ~ posing and glaring, a mad Dietrich struggling to be a wily Garbo (or vice versa). Excessive mugging as Greta (Talya Ginsberg), the barrister's uber-cute secretary, contorts face and torso like some lunatic valley girl ~ amassing overdone stretches of sex-crazed grimaces and exaggerated body twists. Echoes of vaudeville as Inspector Hearne (Kyle Chavira) strides (again with glares!) on stage, resembling Eddie Munster with slicked back hair and a conspicuously pasted-on handlebar mustache. Man, this was one weird production!
Yet, withal, even as the anomalies appeared and the first act dragged, Christie's plot and its titillating twists are compelling enough to sustain the audience's attention.
When all is said and done, however, it wouldn't be fair to ignore a couple of standout performances in this production, which, in themselves, attest to the fact that every cloud can have a silver lining. In Witness's case, let me count the pearls.
First pearl is Joy Bingham Strimple's turn as Janet Mackenzie, the housekeeper to the late Mrs. French. In her moment in the witness box, Ms. Strimple is riveting, an actress in full form, convincingly capturing her character's mannerisms and anxiety ~ trembling hands, quivering lips, shifting eyes. A joy to witness!
Second pearl is Dave Ray as the accused Leonard Vole, who renders a pitiable victim of injustice.
A third pearl is Todd Sloan, who steps up to the bar as the renowned barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robarts, formulating as good a case as for the defense as he can with the evidence such as it is. Sloan delivers a smart and appropriately subtle portrayal.
I can't say that there were not a few moments when I wasn't amused by the theatricality of this show. But, lordy, I had sure hoped instead for the nail-biting mind-bending experience that is at the heart of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Ah, well, so it goes. At this point, I rest my case. Go see it, and judge for yourself.
The show continues its run through June 21st.
Photo credit to Desert Stages Theatre