Running at the Taproot through October 27
Reading the popular Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy Sayers, images of the re
curring characters form in one's mind. In Taproot Theatre's staging of the Sayers novel "Gaudy Night," the intrepid British sleuth Wimsey and his paramour Harriet Vane are very close to this reader's visions of the two.
Alyson Scadron Branner's slender frame, bobbed hairdo and elegantly narrow Anglo-Saxon profile are a great look for Vane. But it's the lack of vanity, the sense of a keen intelligence that make Branner believable as a brainy author of detective novels — and a woman who prizes her independence in the sexist 1935 England of the Sayers novel.
As Wimsey, Jeff Berryman has aristocratic diction and sports a monocle. Indeed. But he hasn't the flippant, twee tics of some lesser depictions of Wimsey. And he exudes all the cleverness and gentlemanly ardor that Sayers endowed Wimsey with.
In Frances Limoncelli's adaptation of "Gaudy Night," crisply directed at Taproot by Scott Nolte, these actors excel at the push-pull courtship of literate souls unraveling a knotty caper.
The mystery on tap: who the devil is terrorizing female dons at Shrewsbury College, Oxford University (patterned on Sayers' own alma mater, Somerville College)?
Harriet is pressed by Shrewsbury dean Letitia Martin (a dignified, warm Pam Nolte) to investigate an escalating series of dark pranks at the women's college — poison-pen letters, nasty graffiti, attempted assaults.
The immediate suspects are several female professors on hand, like the gallant fussbudgets colorfully portrayed by Ruth McRee and Gretchen Douma. (Some have possible motives for causing the kerfuffle.)
Limoncelli's script by necessity shears away some incidents in the novel, such as Vane's ruse of doing academic research as a pretense for her Oxford sojourn.
Some tingles of suspense arise, but the focus is less on crime detection than on two overriding Sayers themes: the pride and fragility of the then-new English movement for women's higher education; and a smart gal's emblematic fear of losing her identity and autonomy in marriage.
The show's encounters (by letter and in person) between wistful Wimsey and conflicted Vane are charmingly bittersweet. (One occurs on a boat neatly conjured by a table, a chair and a pole.)
Two quibbles: the surfeit of rushing about and furniture shifting between short scenes gets distracting. And as Wimsey's ne'er-do-well nephew Viscount Saint-George, Conner Neddersen does not project the dashing playboy twittishness this comic role requires.
Otherwise, "Gaudy Night" opens and closes the case with élan. And it gives more proof that when it comes to staging British whodunits, Taproot is tiptop.