Witness for the Prosecution | Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Those swanky sets are the product of that Rep money—they’re the most beautiful backdrops in town.

 

by Agatha Christie
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Through April 14, 2006

The Browning Theatre at the Rep has a rotating stage. It’s really cool. You can do what the Rep did for Witness for the Prosecution, and have two different sets onstage at once—a posh barrister’s office swivels, and voila!—we are inside an austere British courtroom. Act Three! Here we go again—back to the barrister’s office! Every time that huge disk of a stage rotates, it’s hypnotic. Like a child watching a fat man eat spaghetti. If only the action between the set changes had been as exciting. Witness, with intermissions, is a nearly three-hour experience. It’s an Agatha Christie whodunit without her usual surfeit of suspects, and so, without the intrigue of all the possibilities when a half-dozen murder suspects creep around, meshing and double-crossing and dropping red herrings.

There’s just two parties of interest here, Leonard Vole and his wife Romaine. One of them, we are to believe, has killed a rich older woman. Did Leonard want to collect an inheritance, or did Romaine want to frame Leonard?

Let the talking begin. Witness is very talky, but hey, it’s a courtroom drama, right? More like a courtroom explication. This is not so much a progression of dramatic events as it is a story slowly told. We hear Leonard’s version of the murder. We hear Romaine’s hemming and hawing about whether she can offer an alibi for her husband or not. We hear barrister Sir Wilfred, played ably by the familiar Joneal Joplin, ponder the possibilities. We watch the lawyers argue the possibilities. It takes some time for the action to heat up. As a friend pointed out to me, Witness is a three-hour play based on a Christie short story—not a novel. Aha. Mystery solved. A spoonful of oats stretched to make a large meal makes for a soupy gruel.

What would have punched this up? A leading man with more charisma. An hour less running time. A moment, when we know the true villain is the true villain, that (s)he milks the revelation instead of letting it lie there as limply as the preceding acts. Turning this whole thing into a musical comedy on roller skates. Any of the above, please.

It should be noted that Christie’s comical characters are well played, by Tarah Flanagan as a saucy secretary, Richert Easley as a crusty domestic, and Dale Hodges as a feisty old maid. And once again, those swanky sets are the product of that Rep money—they’re the most beautiful backdrops in town.

But please, no more yawners like this live-action Matlock episode. Once upon a time, before this sort of thing became a chestnut, before Deathtrap, before The Usual Suspects, that climactic revelation may have been worth the wait. We need more to chew on now.

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution on the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center of Performing Arts (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves) through April 14, 2006. Performances run Tues. – Sun. (8 p.m. Tues. – Fri.; 5 p.m. & 9 p.m. Sat.; and 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Sun.). Tickets range from $13–61, and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 314-968-4925, or online.

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