Surprising Delights

Whodathunkit: Our reviewer enjoyed both an Agatha Christie production and a Gaslight show!

What is to be done with a corpse? That's a question that can be applied to most of Agatha Christie's plays, decaying little relics wrapped in the funerary rags of the English country-house mystery and occasionally wheeled onstage to satisfy the morbid curiosity of theatergoers who can't take the time for a trip to Madame Tussaud's waxworks.

Yet in Christie's Spider's Web, the question is asked within the play, not about it; here, for once, is a Christie stage mystery that actually comes alive with a bit of encouragement, and it's getting plenty from Live Theatre Workshop.

What sets Spider's Web apart from most of Christie's other plays? It's an intentional comedy that pokes gentle fun at Christie's own conventions, even while drawing most of its humor from the characters themselves, as any good comedy should. There have been several Christie productions in Tucson in the past few years, but they have stumbled in camping up straightforward material that Christie intended to be taken at face value. The problem is, it's hard to take those genre clichés seriously anymore, so the local troupes have forced Christie into a contortion of self-parody. It would be better just to let those scripts rest for another generation or two, until, counter-intuitively, the distance of time makes them seem less dated and more durable.

Spider's Web is set, as it must be, in an English country manor in the mid-1950s. Its central figure is Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, the vivacious ward of the avuncular Sir Rowland Delahaye. (Were guardian-ward relationships ever as common in life as they used to be in English fiction? Really, Scotland Yard should have launched an investigation into what must have been the serial murders of the parents of England's most attractive young women.)

Clarissa has married an older man, a dull but decent fellow named Henry, who plays a very small role in the story--Christie's and Clarissa's. More central are Clarissa's smart, imaginative and ever-peckish adopted daughter, Pippa; two of Sir Rowland's hangers-on, the doddering Hugo Birch and the virile young Jeremy Warrender; the estate's peculiar gardener, Miss Peake; the inevitable butler (here transformed into a maid); and the inevitable police inspector. Oh, yes, the police must arrive, for a corpse has the poor taste to sprawl behind the drawing-room sofa. One of the characters confesses the deed to Clarissa early on, so, unless that confession can be challenged, the question is not whodunit, but how to protect the sympathetic perpetrator and dispose of the body.

The trouble is, Clarissa is notorious for her tricks and tall tales; will the stories she fabricates be persuasive, or has she cried wolf a few times too often?

This is really an amusing and entertaining trifle, although at the end, it seems that Christie was desperate to provide a twist that barely involved any of the threads she'd woven up to that point. Still, the point is to watch Clarissa spin her tangled web, which turns out to be good fun.

Under Chuck Rankin's restrained direction, which smartly focuses on delivery that tickles rather than pokes the ribs, Live Theatre Workshop's cast does a fine job with Christie's material. The one element that doesn't quite fit is the enjoyable Missie Scheffman's portrayal of Clarissa; unlike her fellow actors, Scheffman seems to be playing to a larger theater, which makes the character seem more stagey and artificial than would be ideal.

But that's a problem of style rather than capability, and Scheffman's fellow actors get the tone just right, particularly Bill Epstein as the avuncular Sir Rowland, Hilary Pursehouse as Miss Peake, Allegra Breedlove as the adorable but not saccharine Pippa, and Keith Wick as the stern police inspector. The other production elements fall neatly into place, except that the "secret" door is too obvious.

Live Theatre Workshop has given us an Agatha Christie production that for once doesn't carry the stench of a moldering corpse; at the very worst, one can detect the occasional odor of red herring.

Meanwhile, the stinkers at the Gaslight Theatre have launched one of their best shows in a long time: Arizona Smith and the Relic of Doom, or Safari So Good! As you can guess from the title, this is a work that demands to be taken lightly.

It's a send-up of the Indiana Jones movies, starring the deliciously hammy David Fanning as an archaeologist-adventurer who must keep a pack of bad guys--including a Nazi colonel und his mâdchen freitag, a sneering Frenchman in a white seersucker suit, and two North African thugs named Ahkbar and Armwar--from raiding the Lost Tomb of Ra, where one can find a relic that will allow its possessor to achieve world domination, if said possessor can make his way to the source of the Nile, skip through the jungle and over a gorge, and wedge the relic just so into a skull-shaped temple carved into the side of a volcano.

Arizona Smith gets off to a fast-paced start and never loses its momentum, even when the cast members try to crack each other up with ad-libs and in-jokes. Writer-director Peter Van Slyke has rarely been in better form, and he's assisted by the sometimes goofy choreography of Nancy LaViola, another Gaslighter who seems to have found special inspiration in this show.

This is Gaslight at its best--which means theater's worst. The script is full of groaners like, "I used to be an archaeologist, but I had to give it up; my life was in ruins." The stage effects are worthy of Steven Spielberg, if he had a budget of about $1.75. Roiling lava! A rampaging boulder! Belching crocodiles! Python attacks! Tiger attacks! Gorilla attacks! Tap-dancing Nazis!

Todd Thompson is especially funny as the light-footed Nazi, Col. Heimlich. Fanning has a great time as the preening hero, although when he strikes his heroic pose, hands above his hips and shoulders scrunched up to his ears, he looks less like Harrison Ford than Ed Sullivan.

The rest of the large cast meets their standard: Joe Cooper, Deborah Klingenfus, Mike Yarema, David Orley, Sarah Vanek, Robert Shaw and Tarreyn VanSlyke know exactly how far they need to go to take this material too far. The sound effects are unusually complicated and precise; Linda Ackermann and Jon Westfall provide their usual spirited instrumental support; the sets and costumes are exactly what they need to be; and the post-show olio pays a winking tribute to 1960s Las Vegas.

I am deeply embarrassed to have enjoyed a Gaslight show this much.

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