Monday, August 13, 2012

AZ: Beowulf whodunit mixes sweet and strange

From Tucson Sentinel:  Beowulf whodunit mixes sweet and strange

Fans of Lord Peter Wimsey, the 1920’s version of Sherlock Holmes, have reason to rejoice in Beowulf Alley’s latest production, “The Body In The Bath.” Turning Dorothy Sayer’s 1923 novel, “Whose Body?” which introduced Wimsey, into a play will no doubt delight those aficionados.
However, the production posits some experimentation that may make it less palatable for traditional dinner theatre-goers who are the biggest fans of these types of plays.
Adapted by local playwright and actress Joan O’Dwyer, “The Body In The Bath” nicely delineates the quirky Wimsey character: his amateur sleuthing, antique book collection, WWI shell-shock debilitations and his unique relationship with “Bunter,” his former first sergeant turned civilian valet.

A very different valet

Philip “Pip” Cardnell gives a sympathetic take as the odd-duck aristocrat detective, and actress Kim Lowry, in a marvelous gender-bending performance, plays the supportive Watson role of Bunter. Their relationship, with Bunter much more subservient than Dr. Watson ever was, strikes a sweet, symbiotic note throughout. Wimsey’s vulnerability and Bunter’s competence speaks eloquently to the reduction of the power distance between commoner and nobility that was a major factor in the Wimsey series’ original popularity with the British middle class.
The story, a classic murder mystery, involves two cases that will obviously evolve into one. Wimsey is called to investigate an unidentified body which has turned up in the upstairs bathtub of Mr. Thipps, an architect friend of Wimsey’s mother. Concurrently, a nobleman acquaintance, Sir Rueben Levy, has gone missing under suspicious circumstances.
Wimsey’s Scotland Yard friend, Inspector Charles Parker, is investigating the missing person case. Police Sergeant Sugg, whose detective skills Wimsey disdains, is the lead investigator for the mystery body. Clues pile up as Wimsey and the audience try to figure out how and why the body got in the bath, as well as whose body is it (it’s not Levy), while also tracing the last known steps of the missing man. Tracking down Levy’s movements adds more clues and contradictions, while also confirming that both cases are related, somehow.
Eventually, the killer, his motive and his methodology become clear in the run-up to resolution. O’Dwyer does a nice job of revealing details and letting the audience solve the crime alongside Wimsey.

Experimental techniques

In a technique that is sometimes interesting but mostly distracting, director Ester Almazán moves characters peripheral to the main action about the stage area in slow motion in the shadows. It doesn’t quite work, since we often can’t quite tell what information these pantomime vignettes are supposed to impart, either because we can’t see the significance, don’t know the characters, or simply don’t care because we are focused on the key characters in the scene and their dialogue.

The technique does result in result in greatly enhanced stage time for the large cast and that’s no small thing. Beowulf Artistic Director Michael Fenlason, who took over the company late last year, is building an interesting coterie of local actors. Some have minimal credits so far, some are returning to the craft after absences, but all are contributing to the significant volunteer workload, handling crafts and logistics, while building the troupe’s esprit de corps.

The cast

Subtlety of acting is not usually a hallmark of community theatre murder mysteries and here several of the roles are played with gleeful over-the-top histrionics. Alamazon moves the 13-member cast around gracefully. Some performances were blunted by hesitation rather than sharpened by resolve, though that may have been opening-night jitters.
Of particular note beyond Cardnell and Lowry were husband and wife Ron Kari and Leah Kari (American oil man John P. Mulligan and Wimsey’s mother ,the Dowager Duchess of Denver, respectively); James Pryor, who gave his all to the Scottish-accented Coroner in his second time onstage; and Armen Sarrafian, also in only his second stage appearance, as freaky Dr. Julian Freke.
Rounding out the cast are Natalia Alvarado (maid Mabel), Sofia Blue (Gladys Horrocks, Robin Carson (hooker Lizzie), David Gunther (Inspector Charles Parker), Meagan Jones (Lady Christine Levy), David Swisher (Mr. Thipps) and Vincent Vulpis in multiple roles as Sergeant Sugg, a coroner’s inquest juror and a police officer.
The script by O’Dwyer could be tauter, a not unusual result in first trials of a new play. In particular, the coroner’s inquest lags, though it provides key clues, and the scene of Lady Levy’s identification of her husband’s body slows the pace with bathos, interrupting the push towards the dénouement.

“The Body in the Bath” continues the resurgence of Beowulf, evident in earlier works of its Next Theatre summer series which concludes with this play. The company has presented a string of interesting and worthwhile experiments, including a rare Eugene O’Neill work, a locally produced multimedia extravaganza and the political introspection of “Hope” by Arizona playwright Jem Street. According to Beowulf, the Next series seeks to “inspire conversation, provoke emotions and turn the typical theatre-going experience on its head.”
With its odd-couple pairing of Cardnell and Lowry and experiments in exposition, “The Body in the Bath” is also worth seeing, especially for fans of Wimsey and Agatha Christie-style plays.

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