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.

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Photo Credits: Ellie Wilder

 


 

Modern Personal Isolation Tank/Float Tank

Isolation tank


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A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER: Who’s Turn to Die?

A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER: A Musical Comedy Tour de Force!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: September 27 – October 20, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has a love triangle, dysfunctional family dynamics, people who marry for money over love, a leading man who is a serial killer, and Scott Wichmann playing 8 different characters.

Written by Robert L Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), based on a novel by Rod Horniman, and directed and choreographed by Kikau Alvaro, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a delightful musical comedy in the hands of a dynamic and talented cast.

After an opening prologue by the ensemble, dressed in elegant mourning attire – a premonition of what is to follow – the audience meets Monty Navarro, sitting at a small desk on the eve of his sentencing for murder, writing his memoirs, including a full confession of how eight members of his family mysteriously died in less that a year. Alexander Sapp plays Navarro, the son of a recently deceased washerwoman who, it turns out, is related to the D’Ysquiths, a wealthy family who made their fortune in banking and finances. In fact, Monty is eighth in line to becoming the Earl of Highhurst, and Sapp seems to have as much fun playing Monty as the audience does watching him plot and plan his way to success, with time out to for romance. Never mind that his love interest, Sibella Hallward, decides to marry someone else. Grey Garrett’s portrayal of the vain and materialistic Sibella is spot on – a perfect balance of comedy and musical theater diva.

Debra Wagoner, as the mysterious Marietta Shingle, has a couple of surprises that are integral to the plot. She is supported by an ensemble that includes Georgia Rogers Farmer, Maxwell Porterfield, Daniel Pippert, Adrienne Eller, Lauren Leinhaus-Cook, Theodore Sapp, and Derrick Jaques.

 

No, I did not forget to mention Scott Wichmann. This is one of those awkward situations in which the most memorable character is not the leading man, but a supporting character – in this case eight supporting characters, all played by Wichmann. It’s not even fair to call Wichmann a supporting character, as he portrayed all the D’Ysquith heirs in line for the title Earl of Highhurst – including an inebriated cleric, a body-building lord mayor, and a country squire who is married but seems to prefer the companionship of men.

There’s Lady Hyacinth, whose interest in helping the poor and disadvantaged provides a perfect opening to send her off to her death in poverty stricken Egypt or serving the lepers in India. Surviving these dangerous missions, Monty sends her off to deepest, darkest Africa to work with a tribe of cannibals. (It’s 1909, and no one had yet been warned to be politically correct or culturally sensitive.) Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey is such a bad actress that when Monty replaces the blanks in her prop gun with real bullets and she shoots herself on stage, the audience applauds her death, perhaps not realizing she has really died. Both Lady Hyacinth and Lady Salome are played by Wichmann. Each character has a different voice, posture, and gait. The Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, for example, has a distinctive, stylized teetering walk.

Each also has a distinct style of dressing, thanks to costume designer Sue Griffin. Visually, the production is also enhanced by Chris Raintree’s expansive set, characterized by multiple movable set components (ranging from Monty’s modest home to Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith’s mansion – an expansive mansion so grand that it offers tours to tourists.

Sandy Dacus’ music direction, along with Alvaro’s direction kept things moving along at a fair clip, although there were a few moments when I thought something should have been tightened up. The first act lasts nearly 90 minutes, with a total run time of about 2 ½ hours. For the most part, the musical selections do not cater to foot-tapping show tunes, but rather to sung narrative that advances the story line – when all the words are clear; sometimes they were not at Wednesday’s matinee.

The surprise ending brings about an unlikely alliance and opens the door to a sequel. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Marriage is delightful musical comedy, satisfyingly delivered by a death-defying cast.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Lauren Leinhaas-Cook, Adrienne Eller, Alexander Sapp, Grey Garrett and Scott Wichmann. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Adrienne Eller and Alexander Sapp. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Grey Garrett and Alexander Sapp. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Scott Wichmann. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

 

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HOLMES AND WATSON: It’s Not What You Think

HOLMES AND WATSON: To Tell the Truth

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: September 14 – October 12, 2019

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $58.95 Dinner & Theater; $10-$20 rush tickets available depending on availability

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

They got me. They got me good!

Jeffrey Hatcher’s Holmes and Watson is not your traditional Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes mystery. Published in 2018, this fast-paced one-act mystery takes place after the death of Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. Mysteriously, the bodies of Holmes and his arch nemesis Moriarty were never found. So. . .

On a remote island off the coast of Scotland in 1894, Dr. Watson is summoned to identify which of three mysterious men all claiming to be Sherlock Holmes is the real sleuth. And that, my friends, is about all I can tell you without giving away the plot and spoiling the fun. This is, after all, a mystery, and it is chock full of clues and red herrings, misdirection and rabbit holes. Fakes, frauds, telegrams, and mad men, oh my!

Running under 90 minutes, and performed without intermission, returning guest director John Moon keeps the pace fast with a tight-knit ensemble and there is nearly as much laughter as mystery. Joe Pabst is Watson, Richard Koch plays Dr. Evans, and there are three Holmes characters. Daniel Moore is Holmes #1, a somewhat menacing figure with a tendency to violent outbursts. Axel Burtness is Holmes #2, who wears a crazed look to match his straight jacket. And Jonathan Hardison is Holmes #3, who is deaf and mute. The cast is rounded out by Irene Kuykendall as the Matron and Travis Williams as the Orderly. But no one and nothing is what it appears to be.

There were some scenes where I questioned the behavior of an actor, but the final scene revealed all and explained what might otherwise appear to be lapses or omissions. Ahh, hindsight.

Joe Doran’s lighting adds depth and drama to Tom Width’s relatively simple and minimalist set – a former fortress turned lighthouse turned asylum, it is appropriately dark and shadowy. Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes add a bit of color and visual appeal, and there are several gun shots and loud noises.

Holmes and Watson is quite an enjoyable evening and keeps the audience engaged. There is enough mystery to please a true Sherlock Holmes or mystery fan, but you don’t have to know a lot about Sherlock Holmes to appreciate the puzzle. I actually enjoyed having the wool pulled over my eyes because it was done so cleverly.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

H&W-164H&W-82

H&W-34
Richard Koch, Irene Kuykendall, and Joe Pabst
H&W-21
Daniel Moore, Axel Burtness, and Johnathan Hardison

 

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