Agatha Christie’s most convincing witness
Even if you’re not that familiar with whodunit writer extraordinaire Agatha Christie, chances are you’ve caught a bit of the myriad stage, film or TV productions of her short story and play “The Witness for the Prosecution.” It’s a murder mystery and trial drama which has starred everyone from Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power to Edward G. Robinson and Beau Bridges.
“Witness” is an anomaly of sorts for Christie, as in its original form, the short story “Traitor’s Hands,” the evil murderer in question escapes punishment — a rather significant “no-no” for audiences when it was first published in a British magazine in 1925 to its U.S. publication 1948.
How Christie ultimately solved this problem in subsequent rewrites can be discovered by taking a seat in the Vagabond Players’ theater for a showing of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, now playing through January.
Kudos to director Robert W. Oppel, who managed a cast of 13 actors (and two understudies), with some of the ensemble playing multiple roles over two intermissions, three acts, four scene changes and a backstage smoke machine (the play is set in foggy ol’ London, don’tcha know).
In this standout cast, Toby Hessenauer shines as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Q.C., the elder sage defense attorney charged with saving Matthew Payne’s Leonard Vole from the hangman’s noose. It’s a role with multiple layers, and Hessenauer guides the audience through his character’s evolvement expertly, with humor and humanity, never falling into caricature.
The same can be said of Autumn Koehnlien’s Romaine, wife (or is she?) of the woebegone Leonard, who shows considerable skill in traversing accents from German to cockney in the roles she plays.
Payne’s Leonard is extremely believable in his role of a naïve, confused and distraught soul who always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Hessenauer and his rival across the bench, prosecutor Mr. Myers, Q.C., played by Joey Hellman, demonstrate good chemistry as two who have crossed legal briefs before. And keeping both players honest with dry humor and a self-
admitted ignorance on the varieties of “blondes” is the capable Brian Douglas as Justice Wainwright.
Immersive set and period costumes
Much praise for the efforts of Sammy Jungwirth and Tammy Oppel, who handled set and costume design. The actors’ wardrobes were appropriate for the era, right down to the barristers’ black raiment and the actresses’ 40s-style pencil skirts, hats and wedges, while the simple but striking set is appealing, with the scales of justice prominent in every scene.
Stage managers Jess Corso and Kerry Simons agilely handle a modular set, quickly transforming Sir Wilfrid’s chambers into an Old Bailey courtroom and twice back again.
As so often occurs with community theater productions of this size, there’s a tiny stumble or two — Peri Walker’s secretary Greta endures a moment of prop-itis (in her case, a struggle to open an envelope); Hessenauer, who at one point finds he’s kept his barrister’s wig on a bit too long; and Hellman’s Myers, who inadvertently calls for the wrong witness — but, as is also the case in good community theater like this, everyone powered through.
The show must and did go on, reaching a powerful and shocking conclusion.
Witness continues its run at Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway in downtown Baltimore, through Sunday, Jan. 28. Performances are held Fridays/Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. with a special “$10 Thursdays on Broadway” performance Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. For tickets, cast and show info visit vagabondplayers.org.