Christie Thriller Stands the Test of Time

Take an isolated island, bring together  10 unrelated individuals who suddenly discover each has a deadly secret, add an unknown host whose object is definitely not a fun-filled weekend and you have Dame Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” the current offering of the South Bend Civic Theatre. The play, which began as a novel in 1939 with a definitely politically incorrect title, soon became “10 Little Indians” and, with the 1945 film version, premiered as “And Then There Were None.” By any name this tale, touted as the world’s best-selling mystery novel, maintains a fascination for both readers and viewers. The theatrical version  opened in 1943. After 60-plus years, its popularity is as strong as ever.

And Then There Were None at Elkhart Civic TheatreThe reasons for this are evident in the SBCT production, directed by Leigh Taylor. Set in the living room of an island estate, the assembled guests  find themselves without transportation back to the mainland and, of course, a major storm brewing. A gramophone recording lists the guests by name as well as defining his/her crime, each of which resulted in a death which has remained unpunished. Retribution is promised. Taking it at first for a prank, it soon becomes obvious to all that the threats are serious. Above the mantel hangs a children’s poem below which stand the figures of 10 soldiers. As each of the guests is dispatched according to the rhyme, one of the soldiers is broken. It finally becomes apparent that the aim of the weekend is death for them all. Designer David Chudzynski’s period (1938) set utilized the entire stage, allowing the actors a comfortably large playing area of which they make very good use. There were few problems with muffled dialogue, as in past productions, and the use of  accents was fairly consistent throughout. Costumes also were close to if not right in the proper time and the lighting provided the proper atmosphere as the murderous weekend moved one by one,  to claiming all of the “soldiers.”. Each of the players brought sustained and believeable individuality to his/her character and built the growing suspense and increasing histrionics in the “stiff upper lip” tradition of all Christie mysteries. The island guests are played by Andrea Smiddy Talkington, Matthew Bell, Sean Shank, James Bain, Marc Adams, Mary Ann Moran, Craig MacNab and Nathaniel Smith, with Roy Brokema and Lisa “Lee” Towne as butler and cook. Jenny M. Dolph serves as stage manager and also crews the elusive boat. Having seen the play and the film several times and, of course, knowing just who did it, it was a pleasure to allow the more than capable cast  to draw us into the heightening tension and even provide a bit of a jolt when the real villain was disclosed.   “And Then There Were None” is one Agatha Christie that stands up well to the test of time.

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Mainstage Auditorium, 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations: 234-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.org.

"Leading Ladies" Not What They Seem to Be

Since the earliest days of theatrical productions, farce has consistently been a favorite comedic form. For the last several decades, the most successful American purveyor of this form has been Ken Ludwig who counts among most popular works”Lend Me A Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo.” Six years ago, yet another Ludwig creation received its premier performance in the famed Alley Theater in Houston, Texas. Since then, “Leading Ladies” has found its way onto regional and community stages literally around the world. On Friday evening, it settled for a six-performance run on the stage of the Bristol Opera House in a fast-paced production by Elkhart Civic Theatre. Heading the cast, in performances that earn many laughs and for which the required high energy could be the basis for a new exercise routine, are veteran actor Rick Ellis and Scott Fowler.

Leading Ladies at Elkhart Civic TheatreThe plot, as in most farces, is paper thin, ditto the characters, but under the assured direction of John Hutchings, the pacing is so rapid that these minor technicalities are barely a subject for concern. But back to the plot. . . . Leo Clark (Ellis) and Jack Gable (Fowler) — Clark and Gable, get it? — are two mediocre Shakesperean actors touring the American provinces with their “Scenes from Shakespeare.”  A disastrous performance at the Shrewsbury Moose Lodge finds them broke and stranded in the wilds of Pennsylvania with nothing but a battered suitcase filled with large-size female Elizabethan  costumes. Spotting a personal ad in the local paper by which an elderly  millionairess is seeking two long lost nephews upon whom to bequeath her fortune, Clark siezes this as the chance to reboot their bank accounts by posing as the nephews. One small glitch. Upon arrival in York, PA, they discover nephews Steve and Max are really nieces Stephanie and Maxine. Never ones to let a gender switch derail their plans, the costumes come out and the farce is on. Keeping the obvious-to-all-except-the-other-characters deception rolling along are the Karen Johnston as Florence, the frequently terminal senior citizen; Daniel Johnson as her doctor who, like the Rev. Duncan Wooley (Carl Wiesinger), has his eye more on money than mortality; Butch (Ricky Fields), the doctor’s weak-willed son; Audrey (Stephanie Musser), Florence’s part-time aide and roller skating waitress; and Meg (Bridgette Greene), Florence’s real niece, Duncan’s fiance and a fan of live theater, especially Shakespeare.

Leading Ladies at Elkhart Civic TheatreMix them together, put Meg with Leo/Maxine and Audrey with Jack/Stephanie while an increasingly suspicious Duncan determines to discover their secret. There is the usual amount of sexual innuendo (in farce, everything is implied broadly then left to the audience’s imagination) and some really frantic costume changing. When he/she discovers Meg’s dream of being in a play, Maxine decides to stage “12th Night” and, as in other Ludwig farces (Verdi in ‘Tenor,’ Rostand and Coward  in ‘Buffalo’), uses the classics to add a touch of legitimacy to his far-fetched antics. Working on John Shoup’s elegant set, the cast, most especially Ellis, Fowler and Greene, are up to and above the demands of their roles.  Special applause to the unnamed “dressers” without whose help, the almost instantaneous costume changes would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

‘LEADING LADIES’ plays at 8 p.m. today and next Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on 210 E. Vistula in Bristol. For tickets, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org. Some available at the box office 45 minutes prior to curtain.

Drama Sheds Light in Darkness

In 1986, Irish writer Brian Keenan was on his way to work at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon when he was kidnapped by Jihad members and held in chains and almost total darkness for almost five years. His experience was the basis for “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” a play by Frank McGuiness, which premiered in London in 1991, moved to New York in 1992 and, as currently produced by Goshen’s New World Arts, is a testimony to the determined resilience of the human spirit in the face of tremendous odds which, unhappily, are still a reality today.

Someone Who'll Watch Over MeThe stark setting is a prison somewhere in Beirut where hostages Adam, an American (Mike Honderich), and Edward, an Irish journalist (Joel Easton), share the empty near-darkness of a small cell. Chained to the wall, with copies of the Bible and the Koran as their own reading materials, they nevertheless manager to entertain, support and irritate each other, always in the hope that release could be imminent. Into their mix is thrown Michael, an English teacher at the university (Craig Lemons), who contributes yet another dimension to their fantasy lives. The trio struggles to fight the  overwhelming monotony  of their confinement by calling remembered horse races, debating the merits of movies and directors, exercising, disputing the affects of various alcoholic beverages, telling bad jokes, playing imaginary sports and sharing private moments. They laugh, sing and even dance, all to the accompanying clatter of their ever-present chains, managing each in his own way to watch over the others. The NWA production, directed by Geoffrey Owens, conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of the dark cell, no small feat as it is played in the theater’s “black box,” which actually is the quite open lobby area. Each actor develops his character both as an individual and as a part of the group necessary for survival. They are different yet the same, and their focus sustains them. Realizing that their situation has been repeated frequently in the more than two decades since Keenan was kidnapped makes it even more frustratingly powerful to watch, especially since the players are in extremely close proximity to the audience. It is to their credit that the fourth wall remains in tact, even though peering through it is a frequently painful experience. “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is a “bare bones” production requiring minimal lighting and costuming,. The latter is my only complaint.  For men who have been chained in a dark cell for many months, their “costumes” are way too clean, especially in the case of Easton whose white tee shirt seems soil resistant.

Note: Seating in this area is, of necessity, on metal folding chairs. Taking a cushion along is strongly suggested.

“Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the theater