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A conceptual approach to 'Dial M for Murder' at Lancaster Opera House

Leave it to David Bondrow and the Lancaster Opera House to give us something unexpected.

The director’s latest production is another in a string of conceptual approaches for the typically conservative venue. Frederick Knott’s 1952 thriller “Dial ‘M’ For Murder,” now onstage through Feb. 4, remains a tame, formulaic murder-mystery for the ages, but in Bondrow’s visual approach, we see new shades of darkness than ever before.

As has become a trend at the Opera House under Bondrow’s tenure as executive and artistic director, the production has a distinct vision behind it, one with a keen eye for design and visuals that productions of a similar scope might overlook. Even on a grand scale, the best murder-mysteries are intimate affairs with intricate narratives and internal parasites—fright, paranoia, confusion, doubt; we feel their special effects rather than see them. Knott’s “Wait Until Dark” is proof that great thrills can be sustained without any visuals at all. (Curiously enough, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film version of “Dial ‘M’ For Murder” was shot in 3D, a trend at that time that was on its way out by the time it was made.)

Here, lighting designer Ruth Strzelewicz paints the set’s London apartment in bold magenta and futuristic blue. Walls made of scrim cloth allow light to appear both opaque and translucent, depending on the application of light; this allows us to see behind the apartment’s walls and onto the street, where important clues are hidden. When paired with Jay Wollin and J. Michael Landis’s original music, ever melodramatic in its flair, Strzelewicz’s cues dance and shift the mood with great surprise.

It’s a stunning visual approach that borrows heavily from illustrator Mac Conner’s famous “Mad Men”-era advertisements. Here, color is used the way noir uses darkness: to conceal guilt. We might accept these bold new dimensions on film, but on stage it requires more work from the actors to sustain the thrill. Unfortunately, Bondrow’s ensemble doesn’t maintain this necessary energy.

Chrissy Vogric-Hunnell has command of leading lady Margot’s important moments, especially in the pivotal second act, but can also feel unimportant, as if Margot is just another woman accused of murder. Stephen Wisker plays Margot’s husband Tony, a role befitting a great leading man (Ray Milland in the film). Wisker looks the part, tall and debonair, but he doesn’t have Tony in firm grip, and therefore, didn’t have me in his. This is the kind of part an actor relishes, a conniving, manipulative, arrogant gentleman, seemingly in control of his own mysteries, but the inevitable fool of a smarter detective. Wisker never quite had me in his hands, where the audience belongs for a length of time.

But despite these weaknesses, Knott’s play still works well enough to warrant a visit. It’s a classic for a reason, and in this captivating light, gives us something new to look at.

Theater Review

“Dial M for Murder”

2 1/2 stars (out of four)

Murder mystery presented at Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster through Feb. 4. Tickets are available online and at the box office. $25, $23 seniors. Call 683-1776, Ext. O.


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