At the Lifeline Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Dorothy Sayers was an English writer who ranks among the luminaries of the period in detective writing between the two world wars now called “the Golden Age.” She caused an immediate stir among detective fiction fans in 1923 with her first novel, “Whose Body?,” which introduced the aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey. His Lordship immediately became one of the most enduring amateur detectives of the age.
The Golden Age, most famously represented by the novels, plays, and short stories written by Dame Agatha Christie, was known for its country house settings and often artificial plots and characters, but Christie probably best known for surprise endings that expose the least likely character as the villain. The Golden Age fiction today comes across pretty much as a quaint historical style, upstaged by the gritty realism of the Hard Boiled school initiated by Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler. The Golden Age writers can be read today for their charm and their improbable but fun plots and entertaining characters. But modern detective fiction now belongs to the realistic writers like James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, P. D. James, Sara Paretsky, and Ross Macdonald.
Having said all that, there is still a secure place for Golden Age writers in the history of detective literature and stage adaptations of their works. Dramas by Agatha Christie still appear on area stages today and are appreciated by audiences for their twist-and-turn plots and often elegant, urbane atmosphere. The Lifeline Theatre has had much success staging Sayers novels adapted by company member Frances Lemoncelli, who has a superb feel for the Sayers style in bringing Lord Peter Wimsey to sophisticated life. Her adaptation of “Whose Body?” is a prime example.
“Whose Body?” is not one of Sayers’s best Wimsey stories but it still suggests the virtues that make her better novels icons of the Golden Age. The plot centers on the discovery of a dead man found sitting naked in a bathtub, wearing only a fancy set of eye glasses. Wimsey is intrigued by the corpse and takes on the case as a kind of lark. Complications quickly ensue. There are questions about the identity of the corpse and how he got into the bath. It may be the body of an English financier named Rueben Levy or it may not. Are there actually two murders on offer. Suspects and possible motives abound until, after much investigation and analysis, Wimsey nails the real culprit, a surprise killer in the well embedded tradition of the Golden Age.
The actual circumstances surrounding the killing are a tangle of improbabilities that are difficult to take seriously today. But looking back nostalgically on the writing of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the indulgent reader is likely to forgive much and luxuriate in the ingenious plotting and often droll dialogue that make the best Golden Age writing legitimately entertaining.
“Whose Body?” is Lemoncelli’s fourth adaptation of a Sayers novel for Lifeline. As usual, she has built her play on Sayers’s text. There isn’t much physical action but the language carries the evening, especially in the mouths of the ensemble responsible for the vast variety of characters. There are 18 roles, 17 played with enormous versatility by just six actors. Only William Anthony Sebastian Rose III has a single role, Peter Wimsey himself. In the novel, Wimsey comes across as a fatuous caricature of an English aristocrat, though the character toughens up in later novels. Initially at the Lifeline, Wimsey appears like the silly-ass hero of a P. G. Wodehouse tale, but Rose does acquire some gravitas as a production proceeds, including a scene in which he is overcome by memories of his brutal experiences on the battle front of World War I.
The supporting characters cumulatively make a stronger and more entertaining contribution to the success of the revival than His Lordship. They include Scott Danielson as Wimsey’s stalwart valet Bunter, Katie McLean Hainsworth as Wimsey’s savvy mother the Duchess of Denver, John Drea as Wimsey’s friend and co-investigator Inspector Parker, Gladys Horrocks as a household servant caught up in the murder investigation, Joshua K. Harris as Wimsey’s boorish nemesis Inspector Sugg, and Tony Bozzuto as the smug and menacing psychology Julian Freke. Each actor plays at least one additional significant character, creating a vivid panorama of men and women from all walks of English life in the 1920’s.
The Lifeline production beautifully captures the style of the 1920’s in its costumes (designed by Caitlin McLeod and Anna Wooden), its creative multi-level set (designed by Alan Donahue), its atmospheric lighting (designed by Diane D. Fairchild), and the eerie sound bytes designed by Stephanie M. Senior). And a shout out to Carrie Hardin for instilling a multitude of English accents so spot-on among all the actors, some of whom have to shift dialect gears on the instant as they change characters.
The manner exceeds the matter in making “Whose Body?” a satisfactory entertainment. The show looks and sounds just right for its time and place, and director Jess Hutchinson has orchestrated the flow of the action on the intimate Lifeline stage with unobtrusive precision. The narrative may strain the spectator’s credulity but the presentation is a triumph.
-‘Whose Body?’ gets a rating of
“Whose Body?” runs until October 27 at the Lifeline Theatre, 6912 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $45. Call 773 761 4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com September 2019
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