The Playcrafters Barn Theatre has kept us in suspense for months since postponing Witness for the Prosecution in March due to cast illnesses. Now the play is on its feet at last, with most of the original cast.
This twisted plot was born almost 100 years ago. English writer Agatha Christie is the best-selling (and most translated) fiction author in history, with Stephen King and even Danielle Steel eating her dust. She was already a successful novelist in 1925 when her short story "Traitor's Hands" was published in a pulp magazine. It was first dramatized as a radio play in 1949, and in 1953, Christie adapted it as a stage script in just three weeks, changing both the name and the ending. Billy Wilder directed the 1957 film, and British and American TV versions followed. Director Victor Angelo told me before the invited dress rehearsal on Wednesday that if I like the Law & Order television franchise, I'd like this, and he spoke the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (And yeah – they say that in England, too).
In Witness for the Prosecution, domestic employees Carter (the dynamic Tyler Henning) and Greta (the delightful Storm Marie Baca) open the proceedings, establishing the mise-en-scène as extraordinarily English with their immaculate accents. They work for barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts (played with gusto and stamina by veteran actor Don Faust), the lawyer arguing the case in court. His collegue Mayhew (solidly portrayed by Guy Cabell) is a solicitor – a lawyer who deals with clients and negotiations. Here, Robarts and Mayhew are representing murder suspect Leonard (Bobby Metcalf). A self-described "newbie" actor in his program bio, Metcalf is impressive and convincing as a dewy, naïve chap, unaware of how much trouble he's in when a wealthy acquaintance is found murdered.
Courtroom dramas are wordy, and Witness' legal eagles bear much of the burden here, particularly Faust, so an extra round of applause to all of them. Kevin Keck plays the prosecuting barrister Mr. Myers. Keck is an imposing, at times threatening figure whom everyone is supposed to be a little scared of. Valerie Hansel is perfectly deadpan as the judge, and Makis Witt provides British flavor and authority in his small role as the court usher.
Leonard's wife Romaine is played by the hardworking Shyan DeVoss. (Having appeared in Playcrafters' productions of 12 Angry Jurors and Christie's A Murder is Announced, DeVoss knows her way around courtrooms and murders... onstage, of course). As Romaine, DeVoss is shady from the get-go, alternately choosing words carefully and blurting conflicting ones wildly, but is always captivating. Another witness is nicely played by recent QC transplant Suzanne Braswell as the victim's maid, and I hope she continues to perform locally. Cassie Dowell, Pam Cantrell, and Nathan Lundburg also turn in appropriately understated performances as witnesses. Some of Angelo's performers use various accents, and others sound like straight-up Midwesterners, which is fine with me. I'd rather the actors use their energy on characterizations than worries about rhoticity. (Isn't that a great word? It means the way "r" is pronounced, from the Greek letter name rho.)
We, the audience, become courtroom observers in the gallery. There's a lot of story here, including evolving suspicions and surprise revelations, and the pace is gratifyingly brisk. I snickered a few times, though I'm not sure it was the playwright's (or director's) intent. One chuckle came through the term “elderly,” which was used when a character described a 56-year-old; today, the 50s are the new 30s, or so I hear through my ear trumpet.
Another descriptor funny to me was the disparaging "foreigner," employed in reference to a German character. (The story was originally set post-World-War-I, then post-World-War-II, and Teutons were inherently sus in both eras.) Adding to the aural amusement, the court reporter, also played by Henning, mimed using a manual typewriter that sounded an occasional margin bell, which at one point punctuated the mention of "£85,000" with a "cha-ching" effect. And the interesting scene-change music included the overture from the comic operetta The Mikado and "Vesti la giubba" from the tragic opera Pagliacci. (That Italian phrase means "Put on the costume," which is likely what was happening backstage.)
I commend Angelo's original cast for staying committed to this show over the months, as well as the new members who stepped in. There was some occasional hesitation over lines on Wednesday's dress rehearsal, but there were no awkward pauses. (This was the first audience for the players, so nerves may have contributed.) As casts often pitch in on set construction, several did here, as well. One nice touch was the green baize on the barristers' tables, which was likely director and set designer Angelo's doing. I also commend performer, longtime cosplayer, show co-star, and costume designer Baca. Thanks to her and co-credited costume designer Sean Sharp, everyone looked fab – and sharp.
Tiny annoyances included some upstage floor creaking, which at times interfered with actors' speech, and the study door at stage right could have used a masking curtain or flat – from my seat, I could see backstage when it was open. However, the greater benefit of experiencing Christie's Witness for the Prosecution live far outweighs my nitpicks. This show is on for one weekend only, so catch it while you can.
Witness for the Prosecution runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline IL) through September 4, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 and visiting Playcrafters.com.