The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a bit like the platypus of the theater world: many people have heard of it, but few have seen it.
And like the platypus, it's quirky, yet strangely endearing and a whole lot of fun to see.
As the Idaho Shakespeare Festival's annual musical offering, Edwin Drood is light, fun, a bit bawdy and a quite campy. But in this case, camp is a good thing, and the production happily wraps its collective arms around its farcical nature and takes full ownership of it.
The result is a thoroughly entertaining evening of laughter, song and more audience interaction than some improv shows.
The plot of Edwin Drood is almost secondary to the play's backstory. Back in 1870, famed writer Charles Dickens began publishing installments of what would be a 12-part serialized murder mystery. Problem was, Dickens suffered a stroke and died with only half of the mystery completed. The result has been more than a century of second-guessing what would have happened, had Dickens finished the story.
One of the greatest conjectures comes in the form of this musical by Rupert Holmes, which uses the device of a company of actors playing a company of actors staging the play. Got that?
The Idaho Shakespeare Festival cast portrays actors, each of whom has a role in a play titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the effect of which instantly allows for interaction with the audience. The pace is quick, without being frantic, and is deftly guided by a ringmaster of sorts, Mr. William Cartwright (played by Aled Davies), who proclaims himself "your chairman."
Davies is a true highlight of the show, offering a strong, grounded presence in the midst of the chaos of a dual-layer show. With quick one-liners, he guides the audience as the story unfolds, and his easy rapport makes everyone feel connected.
The premise of the actual mystery is this: A young gentleman, Edwin Drood—played by Alice Nutting, an actress who has made a name for herself as a male impersonator, who is, in turn, portrayed by ISF veteran Sara Bruner—disappears on Christmas, which leaves everyone fearing foul play. And there is no shortage of over-the-top suspects: Drood's uncle, the choirmaster who lusts after Drood's fiance, John Jasper (Jonas Cohen), said child-bride fiance, Rosa Bud (Emily Leonard); mysterious siblings from afar with strangely unidentifiable accents, Helena and Neville Landless (Jodi Dominick and Eduardo Placer); the reverend who once had a thing with Rosa's mother, Rev. Mr. Crisparkle (Stitch Marker); and the opium den madam with a dark history, Princess Puffer (Lynn Allison).
Each character's motivations are fleshed out in series of narrative, intermixed with asides from the faux acting company and heavily dosed with catchy songs (aptly accompanied by ISF's musicians). The layering provides a sort of Vaudevillian feel, which effortlessly draws the audience in. It's reminiscent of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, a farce which lambasts the murder mystery genre with comic absurdity.
Just as the investigation into Drood's disappearance begins in earnest, Dickens "snuffed it," and the rest of the story is suddenly in the hands of the actors and audience.
The suspects are lined up, and first the cast gets to decide if Drood is in fact dead, or just in hiding. Then the audience takes over. The first decision: what is the true identity of a disguised detective introduced just before Dickens' untimely end. Then, the big one: The audience votes for who did the dastardly deed.
This formula means the end of the play may be different each night, as different combinations of characters with different motivations mean different twists and turn.
And since there has to be a happy ending, the audience also gets to select a set of lovers from the remaining, non-murderous cast. Depending on the mood of the audience, this can range from wildly hysterical to kind of uncomfortable.
The entire cast works as a seamless ensemble, each supporting the other. In the hands of a less capable, or less talented cast, crew or director, this play could end up as dead as the title character. Each actor has to be on his or her toes to roll with the change-ups dictated by the audience. Thankfully, this is one talented cast, in the obviously capable hands of director Victoria Bussert and musical director Matthew Webb.
The musical performances are both accomplished and fun—especially stand-out number "Both Sides of a Coin" performed by Davies and Cohen. Costume designer Charlotte Yetman's creations are rich and detailed and the set is well suited to the nature of the production.
Along with the quick dialogue and slap-stick sensibility, Edwin Drood would be a play worth seeing even without the audience interaction. But it's that constant connection between audience and cast, breaking down that fourth wall, that creates such a wonderful experience.
It's something not often found in theater, kind of like a platypus.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs through Friday, Aug. 28 at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Visit idahoshakespeare.org for tickets and information.