ART OF MURDER: And Then There Were…

THE ART OF MURDER: Die Laughing

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: September 27 – October 12, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 RVATA Members; $15 Students

Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or cat@cattheatre.com

About halfway into his second line, I wanted Jack Brooks dead. The man, played by Aaron Willoughby, is so obnoxious, narcissistic, and misogynistic, I could never develop any sympathy for him. And it only gets worse after the opening scene, where he emerges from his isolation tank and proceeds to strut around in his swim trunks and an open robe. I don’t know Willoughby, a teacher at the Center for Communications and Media Relations at Varina High School who is performing in his first CAT production, but I attribute Brook’s rotten demeanor to Willoughby’s acting abilities – and the script – and not to any personal shortcomings.

Joe DiPietro’s Art of Murder, a 2000 Edgar Award winner for Best Mystery Play, is a comedy murder mystery full of plot twists and turns and laugh-out-loud moments. The problem is that with the exception of Kate, the Brook’s Irish maid, none of DiPietro’s characters is likeable. And even Kate, played by Charlotte Topp with a warm-as-fresh-baked-bread Irish accent, seems to have something up her sleeve, too.

Jack Brooks is despicable, and his treatment of Kate and his wife Annie, played by Emily Turner, make him a likely candidate for murder. Turner’s character is complex, in turn angry, beleaguered, soft, and sharp. The winding path of the plot keeps her deliberately enigmatic. We don’t like to see women abused, but Annie. . .well, you have to meet her and decide for yourself what her story really is.

There is nothing subtle or enigmatic about the Brooks’ art dealer and friend, Vincent Cummings. Cummings is played with over-the-top flamboyance by D.C. Hopkins (not to be confused with dl Hopkins). Without giving away too much of the mystery, Cummings walks unwittingly into a set up, but he brings his own baggage, so I couldn’t muster up much sympathy for him, either.

All-in-all, Art of Murder is 100 minutes of comedic dysfunction, kept moving along at a fairly swift pace by director Zachary Owens. It’s just a matter of who gets murdered, and when, and by whom – we don’t really care why.

Art of Murder, set in a large country house in Connecticut (a murder mystery standard), on an autumn evening about 10 years ago, opens with Jack and Annie, a wildly famous celebrity artist and his less-celebrated artist wife, awaiting the arrival of their art dealer, Vincent. Jack has a grudge against Vincent, and he and Annie have summoned Vincent for dinner, where they are plotting to execute Vincent’s murder. Or are they? At one point Annie says to Vincent (yes, Vincent, not Jack) “I’ve never killed anyone before.” His response is “It’s always good to try new things.”

There’s – possibly – murder and suicide, red herrings and mis-direction, a gun filled with blanks (or are they?) and props that turn up in the wrong place, an escape from a locked box, a disembodied voice, and all manner of deceptions. Elizabeth Allmon’s set is a standard murder mystery genre room but lacks the elegance of a large country estate owned by a wealthy artist, and Sheila Russ’ costumes for Annie and Jack look more like they came from a thrift store than from a couture boutique, as their lifestyle demands. One prominent prop, Jack’s isolation tank, is a roughhewn black box, more reminiscent of a coffin than a sleek example of spa-inspired technology. Alan Armstrong gets to have fun with lighting, and Hunter Mass gets creative with the sound design. Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays before the show starts, and “Ave Maria” ushers in the intermission. Aaron Orensky’s fight choreography is graphic, but I found it visually dissonant and unconvincing that Jack could so easily manhandle Vincent, given that Hopkins is so much more solidly built than Willoughby.

Art of Murder raises many questions. Most of the plot questions are eventually answered, leaving questions like what was the playwright thinking, and are the over-the-top performances intentional, and are the outbursts of anger meant to move the plot along by layering levity with a shot of reality, or were they thinly disguised rants by the playwright? There are only four people in the cast, so the possibilities – who gets murdered and who does the murdering – are not endless, yet DiPietro still manages to throw in some head-scratching surprises.

It’s interesting that of the current fall productions – and this one is the opening of CAT Theatre’s 56th consecutive season of providing community theater in Richmond – there are three mysteries, including Holmes & Watson a contemporary Sherlock Holmes style mystery at Swift Creek Mill (https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/09/21/holmes-and-watson-its-not-what-you-think), and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder a comedic musical murder mystery at Virginia Rep (https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/10/03/a-gentlemans-guide-to-love-murder-whos-turn-to-die).

 

FYI:

D.C. Hopkins, a graduate of Christopher Newport University, has toured with Virginia Rep for their shows “I Have a Dream” and “The Jungle Book.”

dl Hopkins is an award winning actor, veteran poet, and former Artistic Director of the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia who was aa founding member of Ernie McClintock’s Jazz Actors Theatre.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

———-

Photo Credits: Ellie Wilder

 


 

Modern Personal Isolation Tank/Float Tank

Isolation tank


CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: It’s a Circus Out There

CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA:  43rd Annual Winter Repertory Gala

A Dance Review & Some Random Thoughts by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Woman’s Club Auditorium, 211 East Franklin St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 8 – March 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: $18 for adults; $15 for seniors and students (with valid ID); and $12 for children

Info: (804) 798-0945 or www.concertballet.com

It has been awhile – at least two years, maybe three – since I’ve seen a performance by the Concert Ballet of Virginia. This company, which describes itself a “collection of unsalaried Virginians. . .operating within the framework of a full-scale professional dance company” occupies a unique position. Based on a mission to reach large, diverse audiences, the performing company itself is a form of outreach, offering performing opportunities to many who want to experience ballet without the commitment of a full-time professional career. Many performances take place in schools, bringing storybook ballets and dance exploration to students of all levels.

The company also offers two annual gala programs at The Woman’s Club Auditorium on East Franklin St. The recent 43rd Annual Winter Gala, held February 24, included live music by The Concert Ballet Orchestra and two new works, The Banks of Green Willow, choreographed by Concert Ballet dancers Allie Davis and Will Taylor and Circus, a collaborative story ballet created by three Concert Ballet dancers – Toni Lathan, Allie Davis, and Valerie Shcherbakova –to Norman Dello Joio’s “Satiric Dances.”

The Banks of Green Willow, set to music arranged by Richard Schwartz (Symphonic Winds and The Concert Ballet Orchestra), tells the story of an elegant couple in evening dress returning home through a park after enjoying an evening at the ballet. The rich black and green costumes work well with what appears to be a Victorian-era set, featuring gas lamps and a park bench. Concert Ballet dancers Allie Davis and Will Taylor choreographed the piece, keeping the choreography sweet, uncomplicated, and effective for the scene they created.

Circus is a colorful finale piece that includes dancers of all ages and abilities. There are acrobats and tumblers, a snake charmer, tigers, monkeys, a strong man, and more, all under the big top. Company director Scott Boyer takes on the role of an evil Magician, who appears to be vying with the troupe’s Snake Charmer for the affections of the circus’ Tightrope Walker – who looks like the ballerina atop a classic music box.

The program also included works from the Concert Ballet repertory, including an East Indian inspired Sleeping Beauty ballet, Naila, for the junior dancers with stylized movements, a very red-themed and festive Fledermaus, choreographed by Scott Boyer to music by Johann Strauss, and a revival of the company’s “Emperor Waltz.” If I am economical with details, it is because the programs were mis-printed, and The Concert Ballet Orchestra conductor, Iris Schwartz, announced the music and dance selections – without benefit of a microphone.

One thing this company does very well is backdrops and sets. The Fledermaus set included three gigantic chandeliers against the all-red backdrop; The Emperor Waltz featured Greek goddess dresses with Grecian pillars and candelabra – some with real lights – and Naila had some very pretty Alladin-esque costumes.

Another thing they do well is provide live music. Between dances, the orchestra offered a variety of selections from patriotic marches to Gilbert and Sullivan to Big Band.

At the Woman’s Club, there are a couple dozen tables where audience members can sit cabaret-style and order desserts and coffee prior to the start of the program, and during intermission. Most of the audience members appeared to be family and friends of the performers. The program is family friendly, and there were many toddlers in attendance – most of whom were surprisingly attentive! At least one dad ignored the pre-show announcement not to take photographs or make video recordings, and no one seemed to mind.

I chatted with a young woman seated near me – we weren’t seated at a table but sat on chairs in two rows at the rear of the room.  (There were also seats in the balcony – the program was well attended. It was, in fact, a full house.) She didn’t have family or friends in the cast but had seen the program listed on Facebook and decided to come as she’s trying to sample more of the culture that Richmond has to offer. While I enjoyed the music and admired the sets and costumes, I had some major private thoughts about the caliber of the dancing: flexed feet; uneven lines; unsteady balances; dancers looking at other dancers for cues, and more. But my companion for the day had no such reservations and indicated that she plans to come to the next performance as well. I think that is just the sort of outreach education The Concert Ballet of Virginia aims for. Some of the characteristics I consider signs of professionalism might be deterrents to someone who is new to dance, or who wants to be entertained, but not. . .challenged. Perhaps she will come again. Perhaps she will also want to sample some of the contemporary dance and other local offerings. Did I witness the birth of a new audience member – a potential patron of the arts? I hope I see her again.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

———-

Photo Credits: There were no photographs available at the time of publication.

Concert Ballet