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Star Bar History: Night Must Fall, May 2001






















Darkness on the Edge of Essex
Star Bar Players dust off antique murder mystery
The Colorado Springs Independent, May 31, 2001

To begin with, you must understand that this is a melodrama. And there are those who will say I am biased against melodramas. A melodrama, if you hadn't heard, is an old-fashioned play that uses built-in excuses to explain away its badness. The theatrical equivalent of "I meant to do that," claiming its inadequacies as its intention. At any rate, I am bias-proofed against even the most inferior story lines and characterizations. I just thought you should know.

Night Must Fall gets a better production at the hands of the Star Bar Players than the play deserves. The 1935 script comes from an era when there were different expectations of a murder mystery thriller than what we've grown accustomed to in an age that has upped the ante on thrills. Ironically, the play is able to benefit from the accumulated baggage contemporary audiences bring to the production. By imposing our modern understanding on the characters and on the tricks used to misdirect us from guilt's location, we make the play seem brimming with subtleties it never dreamt of.

The play also benefits from a modern psychological interpretation, playing up recurring patterns in human relationships familiar to us through exposure to Jerry Springer and examining the common, dysfunctional fascination with dangerous, abusive character types. Even if playwright Emlyn Williams' script is not the best, it dramatizes a human tendency we've only recently learned to label with an intriguing and oddly reassuring antique quality. The story centers on the disappearance of a young, offstage woman in Essex and the residents, guests and employees at a bungalow nearby. The characters in Mrs. Bramson's English sitting room are best appreciated in their earliest moments on stage. The performances are so pinpoint that we know these characters quickly as what they will prove themselves to be throughout two hours of dialogue.

Mrs. Bramson is instantly and utterly murderable. She is intolerable, a black-caped villain in an elderly invalid aunt's clothing, and if we had any sense we'd be hissing at her. It is not always an easy thing to take credit for, but Danine Schell in the role of Bramson brings the character to her pinnacle, the embodiment of evil, radiant in her ability to stir her audience to discomfort. "Baby Face" Dan is an apt foil for her, bringing a "silver lining" lightness overwrought with his character's artificiality. Peter Strand plays Dan with the requisite too-guilty-to-be-true glances, but he also manages to lend his character an implied depth, sufficient to raise some unexpected eyebrows.

Olivia is teeming with Emma Thompson-style sympathetic strength and a surfacing vulnerability, and E. Amber Singleton gives the evening's best performance in the role, confounding over-thinking audiences to second-guess their predilections. Jeanette Barzee's Mrs. Terrence is too straightforwardly amusing to arouse any suspicion, and Joshua Bates' Hubert Laurie is so unabashedly humorless we can't help but be on guard.

The occasional roadblocks impeding the play's momentum include some opening night difficulties with doorways slowing entrances and exits, particularly with the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Bramson. More troublesome are the awkward scene endings that don't fully fade to black, most noticeably the last change in which an upcoming surprise entrance is telegraphed unnecessarily.

Juanita Canzoneri's direction manages to add layers of tension to an otherwise steady script. There are dozens of moments throughout the evening when the audience is forced to shift its perspective on the status of the characters and the nature of their crimes, vacillating between the logical interpretation of the surface level facts and the insight necessary to decipher the meaning between the lines.

These moments are intended, not by Emlyn Williams, but by Canzoneri and her cast, keeping the audience alert and upright, if not always on the edge of their seats. The original script spells out the guilt as a prologue to the play, but Canzoneri's adaptations bring the thrill of uncertainty back to life.

-- Brooke Robb