Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Witnessing The Prosecution

My current gig, Witness for the Prosecution at Olney Theatre, is roughly half-way through our run. There was the possibility of an extension, but it appears that will not be happening. Though the Word of Mouth has been good for the show, it's an expensive one to run, with 17 actors and 9 Equity contracts. Our houses have been good, but not full, and I suppose the Powers That Be crunched the numbers, and decided we will be closing as scheduled.

The clientele of the theatre, which tends to be a bit senior in age, likes a good mystery, and this one is put together very well indeed. At our first table read, a few people, including our director, Jack Going, offered their opinion that Witness for the Prosecution is Agatha Christie's "best play," meaning I guess that it is the best written. I offer no opinion on that, academically, but I can suggest that it is her most challenging, as the suspense depends solely on the dialogue. As in Greek tragedy, almost all the action of the play happens off-stage (and in this instance, before the play even begins). This is quite different than other Christie classics, which present a slew of characters, usually gathered in some secluded location, with a murder happening, onstage, toward the end of act one. Witness is not structured this way, which puts a big burden on the actors and director of the piece, to keep the show lively and interesting. Jack is a master at such obstacles; our rehearsals were painstakingly detailed, as Jack and the actors worked out every little piece of business, every little movement, every line emphasis.

That attention to detail seems to have paid off, as our audiences have been very enthusiastic, even during a 3 hour presentation.

The length of our show brought some snarky comment from the Washington Post critic, who compared the production to the short story and the Billy Wilder film version from the 50s, both of which are substantially different from the play script. That critic had nothing but good things to say about our actors and design elements; indeed, his only darts seem aimed at Dame Agatha Christie herself, for penning such an over-written piece. That woman clearly didn't know what she was doing when she was writing a play.

Well, Witness for the Prosecution is being touted, even by our press, as a classic whodunit, but I would beg to differ. Ten Little Indians, The Mousetrap, and Black Coffee are all whodunits in the classic sense, with half a dozen suspects presented to the audience. But I would suggest that, rather than a whodunit, Witness for the Prosecution is a "Didhedoit." As I mentioned, the structure of the play is different, and more difficult to manoeuvre.

Well, the Post's critic notwithstanding, we have had some lovely response from the other reviewers. Go here to read an absolute rave, and the only review likely to mention my minimal contribution to the show. I am playing the very small role of a lawyer's head clerk, and in the courtroom scenes, I don a mustache and wig and observe the proceedings as a silent barrister. I don't mind confessing that this routine was a pain during the rehearsal process, as it meant I was called to every rehearsal (in fact, to every hour of every rehearsal), though my responsibility in the show is very slight. But it all worked out, as, now that we are running, I enjoy dashing about changing costumes, it makes the evening move along nicely. One of my least favorite aspects of live theatre is the fact that, often, the actor spends more time in the green room, waiting to go on, than onstage. This is not the case with me this time, and I'm grateful for that.