Mystery Series in Repertory

Pulse Ensemble Theatre
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Michael Koroly

The "Ensemble" in Pulse Ensemble Theatre is not superfluous. This is a truly committed troupe wherein the members share administrative responsibilities as well as artistic focus. The lead in one production may play a walk-on in the next or be selling coffee during intermission on yet another. This dedication to and love for what they do was very much in evidence throughout their most recent project. Last month, they mounted (with considerable success) an ambitious trilogy of plays in the suspense/mystery genre.

The series opened with Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams. More a probing character study with a number of suspenseful moments than an out-and-out whodunit, Williams's play revolves around a charming, yet deeply disturbed young servant in an English country household. He thoroughly wins over the resident matriarch yet draws suspicion from her niece, especially after a shocking decapitation murder nearby. The Pulse team's general handling of British accents was problematic throughout the series, but here the dialects were well-delivered by all. As the niece, Kate Mailer embodied a spinster-with-attitude in a steady, dogged, and ultimately quite accomplished accretion of physical and vocal details. As the police inspector who comes to investigate, Brian Richardson brought authority and wit to a somewhat facelessly written character. As a willful housemaid, Collette Duval succumbed to some verbal mugging in her cockney-isms. Tim Farley provided some very amusing comic relief as a Woosterish young gentleman who's courting Mailer. But it was Patrick Hillan as the enigmatic servant who burned his way into the audience's memory. He inventively revealed the character's dangerous side through moments of pathetic emotional helplessness. (A wounded, cornered rat is the kind most likely to go for your throat.)

Director Robyn Lee staged the show slickly with a number of inventive touches, such as her use of a downstage wall mirror. When one character had his or her back to the audience, the audience could still see a hidden reaction to a statement.

The set, by Mikhail Garakanidze and Valentin Volkov, had the cozy feel of an English matron's home of the period: festooned with bric-a-brac, well-appointed, yet somehow airless. (It also served as the foundation, only slightly altered, for the other two productions in the series.) Sue Jane Stoker's costumes were quite enjoyable to look at and well-matched to character.

For their next show, Pulse updated Agatha Christie's The Hollow from 1946 to the present. The title refers to the house of a formerly prominent politician and his wife. It may also be a collective comment on the inner lives of many of the upper-class people who are their guests for the weekend. When a boorish doctor is shot dead, and his long-suffering wife is discovered standing above the body holding a gun and crying hysterically, the police arrive and details begin to emerge from the morass.

First of all, the updating worked well. A few references to the Falklands and Demi Moore and it's remarkable how fluidly the venality of the ambiance translates into a modern setting, sort of a Brit Dallas. Christie's writing is memorable as well, her emotional justifications for the character's deeds often complex and maturely structured in a manner that would be the envy of many a more "legitimate" playwright. Alexa Kelly proved an astute director with a genuine feel for action unfolding organically from motivation.

It was unfortunate that most of the accents in this one ran into a brick wall (with David Sitler and Frank Nicolo doing virtually nothing to sound English), because in most other respects, the cast was quite solid. Especially fine were Elaine Smith as the emotionally washed-out

wife of the victim and Jan Wallace's wonderful turn as an already intensely eccentric suspect who now seems to be entering the throes of Alzheimer's.

The aforementioned set again worked well with what was formerly a hallway becoming a porch. Stoker's costumes were watchably tony and chic. Bruce Cohen's original music sometimes helped and sometimes sounded like electronic melodrama.

Sherlock Holmes and the Speckled Band reunited many of the actors from the first two productions, and the range of levels among the troupe really showed. With it, director Paul Moss incorporated some charming elements of environmental theatre. While the crowd was waiting in the lobby for the house to open, a young Victorian lady banged on the door from the outside, rousting Mrs. Hudson and urgently pleading to see Mr. Holmes. She was told to wait while the landlady ushered the audience into Holmes's drawing room at Baker Street. She then explained her case to him, involving as it did strange goings-on with her brutish father at their estate of Stoke Moran. As the first act closed, the crowd was led from the detective's flat up the stairs to the house proper, where the Stoke Moran set had been erected. It was all very ingratiating and helped to bring the audience into the action, but there were a number of problems with this leg of the mystery triad. To begin with, while she is to be saluted for her producing and directing skills in the other shows, Alexa Kelly's adaptation of the Conan Doyle story is rather weak and a touch too campy in feel. (Doyle himself adapted the story for the stage in a version the Pulse crew would certainly do honor to.) And the casting was uneven. Tucker McReady played Holmes with zest and an intellectual edge. And Tim Farley (the milquetoast from Night Must Fall) made for a fine bombastic villain, fairly sizzling with evil. But Frank Nicolo made a terribly bland Watson -- again blowing the accent -- and about twenty years too old for Watson at this stage. It was a delight, though, to see Quentin Crisp on stage as the estate's put-upon butler. He was perfect for the part and had a good feel for the idiom. (He returns to Pulse this Spring with his one-man show.)

The Pulse Ensemble Theatre did such a good overall job with this series, they only raised the level of anticipation for their next project.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly

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