The last show I saw at Rome Community Theater was Godspell, not their most recent production (2012) but the one before that. So it’s been too long. I had a faded memory of a run-down facility, but when I visited this past Saturday my impression was corrected for the better. The lobby area is spacious and comfortable, with concession and ticketing services convenient to find and use. The auditorium can be entered from the front or rear of the house, so even a large audience can circulate easily. Seating is reserved, a welcome touch that every theater should adopt (more work for the staff, but it eliminates the need to arrive early. I was seated in the center between the world’s best-behaved 10 year-old theatergoer, and a group of older, less well-behaved specimens.) The stage is raised, with a traveling main curtain that was closed at the top of the show. This time, I was there for a murder mystery.
A Murder is Announced was published in 1950, advertised as Agatha Christie’s 50th book. By my count, it was her 40th novel, out of an eventual 66. It was reviewed favorably upon release, and is often included in “best of” lists. Leslie Darbon’s stage adaptation was first produced in 1977. Mysteries are tricky – like farce, the mix of ingredients and the clockwork progression must be precise. Most elements aren’t as they seem at the beginning, and the pleasure for the audience lies in solving the puzzle as things unfold. While a novel has the comparative luxury of making sure every piece is just right, a live production is complicated by technical limitations (lighting, sound and set), and especially by the actors: flubbed lines and inconsistent accents can irretrievably alter the recipe.
I’ve never read A Murder is Announced, and although I enjoy mysteries, I don’t care about puzzles. After the show, I chatted with an audience member who’d just finished the book. He was dismayed – he’d known too much going in, how the story was supposed to unfold. My first reaction was that each member of the cast had a charming moment or two. I particularly liked Ryan Oliver’s supercilious fop, and Jim Bintz’s weary professionalism as the Inspector. Penny Zugner played many of Miss Marple’s moments perfectly, a lovably diminutive busybody. Deborah Martin had a nicely forceful presence as the matriarch, using her height and graceful movement to suggest authority, which the other characters seemed to respond and defer to. Jennifer Stalnaker provided strong and welcome comic interludes. But the final scenes, when everything was revealed, exposed the weakness of the construction. Several of the actors turned out to be “not who they seemed,” while others were said to have been acting duplicitously. For those elements to have clicked, the seeds needed to be planted early. To someone like me, unfamiliar with the material, the reveals felt arbitrary. To someone looking for the tells, the structure failed long before the end.
I liked the set quite a bit, with its angles, doors and crevices. Director Carl DeFranco moved the large cast around ably – the stage didn’t seem crowded and the interactions and movement all made sense. Scene changes took longer than they might have, with the cast mostly moving in and out of a single upstage door. Those transitions were lit – a common enough decision, often made out of necessity. The audience is asked to suspend disbelief as the lights go almost all the way out, while each character shuffles here and there. I admit that blackouts are difficult, and closing the curtain would take too long, but a murder mystery is a particularly fragile construct to begin with. The scene lights were bright and even, but they never changed except for the light outside the window, the lone indicator for time of day. It would have been nice to see the lighting complement the action a bit more. The sound was nicely placed and worked well for the production.
Rome Community Theater’s next production is The Saloonkeeper’s Daughter, June 4-6. Their next season also looks quite interesting; the $50, 5-show season ticket is a fantastic bargain. Check them out. http://www.romecommunitytheater.org