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REVIEW: Witness for the Prosecution - North Bay Stage Company - by Harry Duke


REVIEW: Witness for the Prosecution - North Bay Stage Company - by Harry Duke

There’s a mystery going on in the East Auditorium of the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts right now. Well, actually, there are two mysteries. The first involves the question of who killed wealthy widow Emily French, which is the central plot point of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution”, the latest presentation of the North Bay Stage Company with direction by Carl Hamilton.  The second and more challenging mystery is how a director as experienced as Hamilton can take source material like this, cast some talented Sonoma County stage veterans, and end up with as big a misfire as this show turns out to be.

Christie’s story was originally published in 1925, and she herself adapted it for the stage in 1953 for a successful run in London. It moved to Broadway for a lengthy, award-winning run one year later.  A film adaptation starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power was released to great acclaim in 1957, and this is the version familiar to most audiences. Well, banish any memories of the film from your mind if you choose to attend this production, as any thoughts along those lines would legally be considered irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial.

Leonard Vole (Matthew Witthaus) is under suspicion for the murder of Emily French, a wealthy widow who conveniently named Leonard as her sole heir. He’s seeking the counsel of noted barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Tim Shippey) when he’s arrested for the murder. Sir Wilfrid undertakes a vigorous defense, enlisting Leonard’s wife Romaine (Rebecca Allington) but there’s soon some question as to for whom she’ll be testifying – as a witness for the defense, or as a witness for the prosecution?

North Bay Stage Company - Witness to the ProsecutionChristie’s story and play and Billy Wilder’s film are all set in London, as is this production, though you wouldn’t know it by any of the elements utilized on stage. Gone is the pomp and circumstance of the British trial system with its powdered wigs and flowing robes, all replaced by basic black dress worn by the entire cast. There’s no courtroom dock, no witness box, just plain black chairs and a slightly elevated judge’s bench. Hamilton’s minimalist approach to this theatrical piece has stripped it entirely of its theatricality, leaving you with three hours (yes, three hours) of something that comes close to the experience of sitting through the recitation of a court transcript as read with all the emotion of a court stenographer. 

Quasi-British accents come and go throughout the evening. You can’t help but notice the irregularity because there’s a lot of talking. There’s also a lot of pacing and a lot of sitting, but did I mention there’s a lot of talking?  I emphasize that because it’s what I heard several audience members state at the end of the first act – “Gee, that was a LOT of talking.”  One had hopes that things would pick up in Act II, or Act III, but those acts also consisted of characters talking, pacing, sitting, standing, entering, exiting and eventually (Spoiler alert!) dying.

It’s not that the actors weren’t trying, because some were (Allington in particular.) The problem goes back to Hamilton’s approach, which not only stripped this show of its theatricality, but also of any suspense. Oddly staged, the show lumbered through its courtroom scenes where the seemingly easy task of calling witnesses consisted of the clerk of court getting up from his upstage position, slowly walking to center stage, calling the witnesses, who would then slowly enter from the back of the house, walk down the aisle, take the oath and then begin. This took forever, with long, awkward periods of silence as the ‘witnesses’ entered and exited, bringing an already snail-paced show to a screeching halt with every new witness and killing any sense of momentum or courtroom drama.

Hamilton’s one bit of theatrical ‘flair’ in this endeavor was to enlist the entire audience as accessories after the fact for what was going on on-stage by treating them as the jury and having  an audience volunteer read the lines of the jury foreperson. This just didn't work and was almost as distracting as the audience member's cell phone going off during what was supposed to be a tense interrogation scene.  

As a responsible citizen, I take jury duty seriously and always report when called for duty. This was the first time I wished I’d gotten out of it.

Witness for the Prosecution
Presented by North Bay Stage Company

through May 17
Fri/Sat @ 8pm  Sun @ 2pm

Wells Fargo Center for the Arts
50 Mark West Springs Rd
Santa Rosa, CA 95403

(707) 546-3600

Theater reviews by Harry Duke