Neuse Little Theatre of Smithfield, NC is currently performing its community-theater production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, under the direction of Shaun Braswell and Meta Toole, in “The Hut.” This quaint venue is always a fun place to see a proscenium-staged show. We found Saturday night’s performance to be entertaining, but not without flaws (see below).
This work of Ms. Christie’s originally appeared in 1925 as a short story called “Traitor Hands.” She later adapted it to the stage under the current title, and it opened in London in 1953 and in New York in 1954.
When the curtain rises, Leonard Vole (Juan Ortega) is arrested for the murder of a certain Emily French. At first, it seems that he has an alibi, and then he does not. His fate hinges on the testimony (and actions) of a certain witness called by the prosecution.
On the bright side:
Ann Forsthoefel turns in a stellar performance as Romaine Heilger, the witness in question. Whenever she is onstage, her presence commands attention. Additionally, her German accent is authentic and polished. In another scene, she delivers a cockney accent that would make George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle proud.
Rather delightful in a few of the smaller roles are Patsy Castellano as Greta, Mike Rumble as Carter (and Mr. Clegg), and Reggie Parker as Mr. Justice Wainwright. And Kathi Nixon brings a certain Irish charm to the role of Janet Mackenzie.
Co-director Meta Toole has designed a set that makes effective use of three rotating platforms which magically transform the space from law office to courtroom and back again. And the cast is to be commended for their choices of costumes and props.
Not so bright:
After a brisk opening scene, the tempo slowed down markedly; and things kind of dragged until the entrance of Ann Forsthoefel as Romaine Heilger. In fact, it seemed throughout as though Forsthoefel’s absence or presence onstage pretty much dictated the pace — quicker with her and slower without her.
Even though co-director Shaun Braswell’s lighting design is good, we witnessed a bit of a problem (which might have been due to the actors’ blocking). On a few occasions in the first act, a character would stray far enough downstage that his face would not be lit. A quick reminder: “If the light is not in your eyes, the light is not on your face.”
In community theater, it is to be expected for accents to be somewhat uneven. In this production, however, the unevenness of the British accents is quite pronounced — to the point of distraction. In fact, one character loses his accent after his first few scenes, and another simply speaks in “pure North Carolina” dialect throughout.
A few quibbles concerning the courtroom scenes:
While authentically British, these scenes are quite static, and therefore feel overly monotonous. We wondered if a bit of directorial license might have been taken, sacrificing a measure of verisimilitude to introduce a bit of movement, thereby making them more interesting.
As witnesses deliver incriminating testimonies, Juan Ortega (as Leonard Vole) reacts with understandable outrage. The problem: his reaction is the same every time — he jumps up as though he might leap over the railing behind which he has been seated and utters a response, and he then immediately sits back down. We felt that a few variations would make it more interesting.
From the Department of Picky-Picky: We were impressed by the authenticity of the sound of the radio that is turned on in the opening scene. Presumably, the credit goes to Natasha Thompson. Also, while the handling of tobacco pipes in the earlier scenes is smooth and natural, there is a cigarette that appears in a later scene that is rather clumsily handled; and since it is totally superfluous, could easily have been left out.
Flaws notwithstanding, the show is, indeed, worth seeing. The final two performances of Witness for the Prosecution will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23rd, and Saturday, Feb. 24th.
Neuse Little Theatre presents Agatha Christie’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION at 8 p.m. Feb. 23 and 24 in “The Hut” (the former American Legion Hut), 104 S. Front St., Smithfield, North Carolina 27577, at the corner of Front St. and U.S. 70 Business (Market St.).
TICKETS: $13 in advance and $15 at the door (cash or check only).
BOX OFFICE: 919-934-1873 or email@example.com.
Witness for the Prosecution: A Play in Three Acts (1925 story called “Traitor Hands” and 1953 West End and 1954 Broadway courtroom drama): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1060/witness-for-the-prosecution (Samuel French Inc.), http://www.agathachristie.com/theatre/witness-for-the-prosecution (Agatha Christie’s web page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/witness-for-the-prosecution-9431 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witness_for_the_Prosecution (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.repstl.org/assets/doc/M6-Witness-9f41201ba6.pdf (The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis).
Agatha Christie (English crime novelist and playwright, 1890-1976): http://www.agathachristie.com/ (official website), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Agatha-Christie (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/agatha-christie-3916 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002005/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agatha_Christie (Wikipedia).
Meta Toole (Smithfield, NC co-director): https://www.facebook.com/meta.toole (Facebook page).
Shaun Braswell (Pine Level, NC co-director): https://www.facebook.com/shaun.braswell (Facebook page).
EDITOR’S NOTE: A native of North Carolina, Yvette L. Holder has studied theater at three institutions: the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (New York), and N.C. Central University, where she received a BA in Dramatic Arts. Yvette also promotes and produces comedy theater, as well as working with playwrights around the country during the development stage of their work. She hosts a monthly play reading session: “Sips and Scripts” at Imurj in downtown Raleigh. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read Yvette and Kurt’s reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.