Friday, March 8, 2019

Witness For the Prosecution (play)

See you now;Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.
- Hamlet, IIi
Costume design by Esther Montgomery Haberlen
SPOILER ALERT: This post reveals solutions to Agatha Christie’s play Witness For the Prosecution and novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles ... and also my new play The Way I Danced With You.

Hey, look! I’m dressed up for a thing. In the early 1950s, when Agatha Christie wrote the play Witness For the Prosecution, it was in the immediate aftermath of her smash hit The Mousetrap (1952) and theater producers must have thought nothing of paying a dozen or so actors to sit still and say absolutely nothing in the role of jury members and assistant barristers.

In the Great Lakes Theater production, which closes this weekend, they continue the novel and exciting concept of seating audience members on stage (as they have done twice before in a modified “Globe Theatre” staging for Hamlet and Macbeth) to represent the jury. And for the assistant barristers the company has engaged enthusiastic members of their Board of Trustees. I am not a trustee, but I am a member of the education department and have made myself available to step in for several student matinee performances.

My job is to sit there, under my wig, take notes, and react a little. Not a lot. No distractions. I think I handle that very well. And the production is delightfully effective. I was present for the first student matinee and I have never heard such a strong reaction from an audience of middle and high school students, and I mean ever, at any live theater production I have ever attended. It was breathtaking.

Because I wondered how a modern, teenage audience would receive this work. It’s a courtroom drama, and haven’t we all seen those? Isn’t Law and Order still on every channel, all the time? And yet, there is a reason Dame Christie is the third most popular author in the English language, after Shakespeare and God. The last five minutes students were literally on their feet, there was no restraining their reaction. Backstage was quite a scene as well, no one had experienced anything like it!

Photo: Roger Mastroianni
(Great Lakes Theater)
Agatha Christie likes to put the culprit right in front of you, to make it painfully obvious exactly who is the guilty party, and then through doubt and confusion she will convince you your own conclusions were absolutely wrong.

In her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), the most unlikable characters are in cahoots, secretly lovers but feigning antipathy towards each other, working closely to create for the one accused a watertight alibi. Evidence is introduced late in the trial, absolving the suspect of all suspicion. And they would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for the little grey cells of a certain Belgian detective.

Christie does nearly the same thing in her 1953 play Witness For the Prosecution (originally a short story, Traitor’s Hands, first published in 1925) by building an unassailable case, also apparently pitting lovers against each other. A last minute piece of evidence is contrived and in this case -- Hercule Poirot being absent -- the guilty party almost escapes all punishment.

In each of these two cases, Christie also plays upon an almost racist kind of xenophobia towards Germans that was prevalent in England at the time.

As it happens, my new work, The Way I Danced With You, currently in rehearsal for its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre, was originally intended as something of a mystery. I had written two short scenes, amounting to a short, forty-minute work. Each scene took place ten years apart, and how they related to each other was only revealed in the very final moments.

In time I created a third scene, between the two. It changed the nature of this mystery, and in a weekend of performances at Blank Canvas last year, it was more of a puzzle than a mystery. My own fear of leaving the audience confounded led to several decisions which, while still having created a compelling narrative with interesting characters, was not as daring as what I had originally intended.

At the suggestion of director Tyler Whidden, we have further revised the script, obfuscating certain elements which had previously been evident. Concealing that which is otherwise apparent and obvious and introducing the element of doubt. Will the audience solve the mystery?

Perhaps I have learned from Christie and thing or two about misdirection.

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019.

Great Lakes Theater presents "Witness For the Prosecution" at the Hanna Theatre through March 10, 2019

Agatha Christie's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" adapted for the stage by David Hansen is available from Playscripts, Inc.

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