So well are the mystery plays done at the Shaw Festival, it is like looking forward each year to a fine meal in a fine restaurant, even if it is much the same meal in the same restaurant.
For some reason, finely crafted theater -- for example, "And Then There Were None," this season's charmer at the Royal George -- associates itself in my mind with food, tasty dishes, piquancy, deft seasoning, nothing too filling, perky nibbles, hors d'oeuvres maybe, certainly not the main course. Possibly it's because it's digested and gone the way of all meals by the time the last applause has died down; it doesn't lay on the stomach of the mind. Or possibly it's a conjunction of the consumable art of cuisine with the consumable craft of light, entertaining theater.
At any rate, craft there is. A painted drop curtain depicting cliffs, an isolated house and the sea raises and, behold, we are in the house. Farthest from us, a lengthwise set of windows overlooks clouds and the sea and stone steps down to a boat landing (out of our sight, but we hear a lot about the daily provisions boat to this isolated island off the English coast). Partly blocking the view is a huge fir tree.
The room is inviting, with the standard comforts. Pale golden sea light floods the room. As the play progresses the light withdraws, lamps are lit, and in a deep darkness when the power generator quits, candles are produced against the gathering blackness, which is concurrent with a series of deaths perpetrated on the houseguests.
And there is that fir tree. In addition to the goblins of darkness, a storm bears down on the island retreat. Sound effects put us in the right imaginative frame of mind, but that tree is the clincher. Branches hang across the wide windows, and the pine needles flutter, then whip, then bang against the glass as the storm reaches its frenzy, lightning shooting down the sky. That attention to detail -- the ingenious work of designer Cameron Porteous -- is exactly what lifts the Shaw Festival's mystery bonbons way out of the ordinary.
Jim Mezon is in charge of the production. Elizabeth Asselstine is the designer of the all-important lighting. Mood is everything. The main job is to supplant common sense with mood to hoodwink the audience. Mezon's excellent direction, Porteous' wonderfully effective design and Asselstine's calibrations do exactly that.
I see no drawback in the performance, other than this play is from Agatha Christie and her work is so well known that the suspense may go right out of it. To the completely isolated summer house Christie brings 10 guests and knocks them off one by one to the children's rhyme "Ten Little Indians." Why and who are the causes of mystery and suspense.
They are a mixed lot, part of the fascination of course, and it's only later that we learn what they hold in common: All are guilty of the death of someone close to them in their pasts, guilty in the eyes of the mysteriously absent host if not in the eyes of the law.
One is poisoned, one fails to wake in the morning, one is stabbed, one is axed, one is given a deadly injection, and so on. The levels of hysteria and suspicion rise accordingly among the dwindling survivors.
Peter Millard and Susan Stackhouse are the quarreling household help; Peter Hutt and Tracy Ferencz are on a weekend tryst; Andy Skelly is a callow, upper-class twit; Norman Browning is a private detective; Roger Rowland is an elderly general; Wendy Thatcher is an unpleasant Christian moralist; Michael Ball is a judge; William Vickers is a doctor; and Troy Skog as the boatman is the link to the mainland.
All are types and are inhabited in admirable comfort and detail by the accomplished performers. Mezon, an accomplished actor himself, seems to be an ideal guide.
And Then There Were None
Rating:***** Mystery suspense by Agatha Christie.
Directed by Jim Mezon, with Peter Hutt, Tracy Ferencz, Michael Ball, Norman Browning, Susan Stackhouse, Peter Millard, Roger Rowland, Wendy Thatcher, William Vickers, Andy Skelly and Troy Skog.
Performances continue in reper tory through Oct. 31 in the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. UE1