review: gaudy night

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-GAUDY.html]

GAUDY NIGHT

Adapted from Dorothy L. Sayers by Frances Limoncelli
Directed by Dorothy Milne
Starring Jenifer Tyler and Peter Greenberg
Lifeline Theatre
6912 North Glenwood Avenue / (773) 761-4477 / http://www.lifelinetheatre.com
Through July 30, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 30, 2006

Lifeline Theatre‘s newest literary adaptation, “Gaudy Night” is a swiftly moving, mesmerizing, and romantic piece involving threats and sabotage amidst blue stockings and Latin quotations in 1935 Oxford. According to program notes, France Limoncelli‘s adaptation is the third Sayers piece to receive this Lifeline page to stage treatment since 2002. As a recent import to Chicago, I was not here to see the prior productions, but if they had any of the class of this one, my regret is deep.

This play takes place in and around the grounds and buildings of Oxford University at the relatively newly established (and fictitious) women’s Shrewsbury College. Members of the class of 1920 have convened for a reunion (or “gaudy”) in 1935. Harriet Vane ( Jenifer Tyler) is a member of the reunion class and a mystery writer with a past – once acquittal of murder and with a long-term bemused entanglement with Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg). Harriet soon finds herself amidst a series of mysterious acts (“poison pen” notes, fires, graffiti, and other pranks) that the women of the college request her to solve. The women resist police involvement as they feel their very existence on the campus and their right to work as scholars is still tenuous. And the game is on. Mysteries are solved by play’s end and small worlds and wounds are set to rights, as is required of stories of this “well made” school, and the police are finally summoned. But much more is going on with this play providing its main pleasures and provocations.

The 2006 sensibility approaching this strongly female and early feminist material could find fault with the plot devices and developments. Harriet Vane is a graduate of Oxford as is Lord Peter, and Harriet is the one who has been asked to solve the mysterious serious of break-ins and acts of destruction and threatening notes received by the circle of woman scholars. And yet, several of the college women resent Harriet while fawning over Lord Peter when he visits, especially the fabulously crimped Miss Hillyard (Mary O’Dowd), and Harriet herself struggles with the mysteries and with the larger questions as they pertain to her own life. In fact, her struggle with these questions on a personal level may cloud her professional analytic abilities. Does she want conventional marriage or the cloistered life of the mind? The “solutions” to the problems of the play (and I will provide no spoilers here) come only when Lord Peter returns to town and assesses the situation. And yet, we must keep in mind that these characters were written in 1935, and much as Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles first created in 1934’s novel The Thin Man, Harriet and Peter are by action and by intellect and by loving banter fully partners throughout the play, despite his “lead” in providing ultimate plot resolutions. It remains only for Harriet to find her own peace with a decision about Lord Peter’s repeated marriage proposals that provides the curtain line.

Looming war in Europe provides context for action of the play. Lord Peter repeatedly travels off for unspecified work for the Foreign Office in Rome, Paris, and Warsaw. [We are told of these activities and the reasons for them by a conveniently present, amusing and yet otherwise potentially superfluous character Saint George (amusingly played by Bradford R. Lund, Lord Peters nephew and an Oxford undergraduate.] We understand Lord Peter’s activities now 70 years later in the context of growing fascism in those very cities he has been visiting and know that the political unrest there will be leading to World War II. Upon his return from these adventures to check in with his gal Harriet and their long-term reluctant relationship, these actions on a world stage provide a kind of contrast and context for parochial machinations of a college malefactor. Discussion of what Lord Peter has seen in his travels provides the characters with the opportunity to analyze the role of principles in life, and how they can lead one to combat and death. One character muses that “Suffering for principles seems to be what principles are for somehow.”

The acting ensemble is tight and balanced providing elegant support to the two leads. Regina Webster as Annie Wilson (understudy who went on at my performance) has a light touch with the character of a tightly wired widowed staff member at the college. Katie McLean doubled two roles well and distinctly. More senior members of the college women were touchingly portrayed by four additional women, etching distinct and funny and sympathetic characters: Jan Sodaro is Miss Lydgate, an English tutor whose burned manuscript is an early act of sabotage; Melinda Moonahan‘s Dean Letita Martin provides stiff decorum and reason amid the growing panic among her colleagues; Christina Irwin as Miss Devine etches a complete portrait of a visiting scholar who brings some baggage with her to the college; and Mary O’Dowd’s Miss Hillyard, already mentioned, is a stiff and familiar version of a self-contained and principled member of the cloistered intellectual set.

Director Dorothy Milne creates a complex world in a small space and utilizes every possible entrance and exit in the theater’s space. Jackie and Richard Penrod have created a beautiful and flexible set. You know that you have become attuned to subtle set pieces when the emergence of a rowboat elicits “oohs” from an audience. Sound by Victoria Deioria is lovely as usual and appropriately cinematic when necessary, moving smoothly from the pomp of collegiate ceremonial events to chirping of birds and buzz of insects evoking a world outside the college walls. Lighting and projections designs by Kevin D. Gawley are striking and subtle in equal measure. Both the fight choreographer (Geoff Coates) and dialect coach (Phil Timberlake) create dramatic movement and accents from another culture that help to evoke Sayers’ particular world. And dramaturg Laronika Thomas‘s essential program notes and Latin translations assist the viewer in enjoying some key nuances of the story.

This production has already added performances during its limited run. Don’t miss this lovely romantic vision of a collegiate retreat in which stunningly modern questions are asked amid mystery and suspicion. Its delicious.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 30, 2006)

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