by Gail M. Burns
It breaks my heart to have to inform you that The Theater Barn has mounted a ponderous and shabby production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. Contrary to popular opinion, critics do not salivate at the prospect of writing negative reviews. We want every production to represent the best of the artists involved. But while many fine folks have worked hard on this production, the end result is sub-par.
Without giving away any secrets, I can tell you that this is a courtroom drama about the trial of a charming but shiftless young man, Leonard Vole (Nate Healey), for the murder of an “elderly” (she’s 56 years old) woman he has befriended. We hear his side of the story, and the testimony of several others involved – the police Inspector called to the scene (Matthew Tyler), the coroner who examined the body (Aaron Holbritter), and the victim’s devoted Scottish housekeeper, Janet MacKenzie (Amy Fiebke). The first of many twists comes when Vole’s German-born wife, Romaine (Jean Garner), testifies for the prosecution rather than in her husband’s defense. Why? Which one of them is lying?
The play is full of questioning, and while at first one feels compelled to listen closely and squirrel away important clues, eventually the load becomes tedious and overwhelming, which removes whatever interest that could be mustered for the action.
Witness for the Prosecution started its life as a 1925 short story, which Christie expanded into a play in 1953, the year in which she also set the on stage action. In the intervening years another World War was fought, and Christie’s choice to make Romaine an Austrian takes on different overtones. Sadly, director Phil Rice fails to make the impact of her nationality clear in this production. She claims she makes certain decisions based on her desire to earn the jury’s sympathy, a sympathy that would easily have been hers had she not spoken with a German accent.
The show rests in large part on the shoulders of John Noble as the defense attorney Sir Wilfred Robarts, QC. The early scenes occur in his chambers, where we also meet his ditsy blonde secretary Greta (Cara Moretto) and law partner Mr. Mayhew (Brandon Lee.) Moretto’s time on stage is sadly brief, but she brings a welcome sparkle and some much-needed comic relief. Lee is saddled with one of way too many non-descript male roles. Christie tells us nothing about Mr. Mayhew, and so it is hard to care much for him.
Once in court we meet the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Myers (Steve King) and the judge (Sky Vogel.) Since the case is tried in the Central Criminal Court in London, also known as “The Old Bailey,” the judge and lawyers are all robed and bewigged in the British style. Fiebke is credited with wig design, and some of her efforts, notably the one she wears and the wig for Garner, are lovely, while others are frizzy embarrassments.
Healey is the most interesting actor on stage, and he is there for long chunks of time, sitting, isolated in the dock in the courtroom and not allowed to speak, yet everything that is going on has a direct bearing on whether his character lives or dies. Sometimes it is more fun to watch Healey’s reactions than to watch the so-called action that is provoking them.
Healey also manages to be both charming and dangerous by turns, leaving you teetering on that razor’s edge between believing him fully capable of murder, and utterly innocent.
Garner is a very beautiful woman, and she wears Jade Campbell’s 50’s costumes well, but she cannot act and creates more of a caricature than a character.
Noble and Vogel are miscast. Fiebke is delightful, but she also has a very small role, and is burdened with a comically thick Scottish burr. In fact just about everyone in this play struggles with an accent of some kind, mostly unsuccessfully. Other than Romaine, who must have a “foreign” accent, Rice could easily have gotten away with letting the rest of the cast eschew the attempts at Britishness.
Sam Slack, who also plays two small rolesf, has designed the set, which contains an interesting revolving element, but which otherwise looks shabby and amateur and slices the upstage corners off the already small Theater Barn stage.
Rice is a very popular local director who is especially gifted at staging comedy, which this isn’t. And although Dame Agatha builds in some nice humor, most of it fell flat at the performance I attended.
But as I said at the outset, I am sad to have to write this because the Theater Barn is capable of so much better, and because it is important to keep small theatres with affordable ticket prices and opportunities for rising young artists thriving. The Barn’s annual Agatha Christie production is a cornerstone of their season and undoubtedly their finances. Witness for the Prosecution runs two more weekends, and maybe during that time the cast will be able to bring the production up a few notches to make it the fun summer fare it is intended to be.
Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie, directed by Phil Rice, runs July 4-21, 2019 at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20 in New Lebanon NY. Set design by Sam Slack, lighting design and props by assistant stage manager Ashley Hedgepeth, costume design by Jade Campbell, stage manager Kaelyn Fuld. CAST: Nate Healey as Leonard Vole, Jean Garner as Romaine, John Noble as Sir Wilfred Robarts, QC, Brandon Lee as Mr. Mathew, Sam Slack as Carter/The Court Clerk, Cara Moretto as Greta, Sky Vogel as the Judge, Steve King as Mr. Myers, Aaron Holbritter as Wyatt/Clegg, Amy Fiebke as Janet macKenzie, Matthew Tyler as Inspector Hearne, Katelyn Widmer as the Other Woman, and Jake Jamross as the Bailiff.
Performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $29.00 for the evening performances and $27.00 for the Sunday matinees. Box Office (518) 794- 8989 hours are daily from 11am to 4pm and will reopen one hour before performances. https://www.thetheaterbarn.org/