Plano — Shortly after you settle into your seat at PFamily Arts, actors come into the house and mingle, brazenly making advances on the single men and being quite suggestive to those sitting next to a woman.
Although nothing new, this prelude to Rupert Holmes’ 1985 musical Drood (he wrote the book, music and lyrics) sounds the first notes of what is perhaps one of the most honestly meta shows that's been seen around here in a while. Not entirely vaudeville, not entirely a straight play with a clever envelope, this off-balanced mutant aimed to create a completely unique experience, like dinner theater on speed, but without the food, when it opened nearly three decades ago.
Drood draws its inspiration from Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but a stroke and the preeminent author’s subsequent demise kept the work from being completed. (A recent New York revival of this show used Dickens' full title.)
The story, as it has come down through history, centers around John Jasper (played with simmering malevolence by John Campione), a country choirmaster by day and a London dope fiend by night. This unlucky musician has fallen pathologically in love with his student, the innocent, yet perceptive Rosa Bud (Maranda Harrison), who happens to be engaged to John’s nephew, Edwin Drood (Sarah Smith who, in the 19th century’s popular practice of pants roles, is a girl). Toss in a hot-blooded Moor (Michael McNay) and a parson riddled with daddy issues (R. Bradford Smith), and you have a novel full of likely suspects in Drood’s disappearance on a stormy Christmas Eve, 1892.
Tack on a messy denouement involving a mysterious opium dealer (Linda Leonard) and an enigmatic detective (TBD), and that is the plot as we have it. It ends right where Dickens would have begun using his particular genius to sanctify what, up to that point, was a pretty standard melodrama about a man driven deeper and deeper into madness by infatuation.
This leads to one of the more unique and entertaining aspects of the musical. Instead of fabricating its own ending, the play lets the audience decide, by show of hands, the identity of both the murderer and the detective, thus completing the tale. The reveal I saw was one of the most messed up, funny things I've seen in a while.
Playing off the traditions of the English music hall and pantomime that were popular during Dickens’ time, the audience does not actually see a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood but a provincial British acting troupe’s liberal rendition of it.
The result is perhaps less about Dickens, and more about a large, unscrupulous man sporting a red coat and tails (Bradley Campbell’s master of ceremonies comes off as a good-natured, if slightly creepy, uncle you try to stay away from during family visits) stitching together disjointed but chronological vignettes with the help of a bumbling, provincial cast. Imagine Michael Frayn smoking a lot of dope and reading Great Expectations before writing Noises Off.
Although Campbell claims to be presenting Dickens, the opposite very quickly proves true, as he continually lets the action of his play be interrupted, introducing actors and lets them sing songs for our play. The cast makes a valiant effort at drawing spectators into the general atmosphere by means of editorial asides and encouraging audience participation. But their efforts do not go beyond what can be expected from a vaudeville envelope to transcend the drama and become an immersive experience.
By splitting the focus between the troupe and the characters they portray onstage, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to sympathize with Edwin, John or Rosa because the audience is only exposed to major plot points without the accompanying character development. Neither does the audience really establish any connection with the clownish troupe beyond a basic rapport as the actor/characters keep running backstage to prepare for their next scene without building the camaraderie of a good standup comedian.
McNay’s performance as the Moor, Neville Landless, stands out, however. His mannerisms, hand gestures and liberal use of the evil eye are absolutely delightful and embrace the spirit of this self-aware melodrama. Although the slightly jazzy music never truly separates itself from typical Broadway fare, the frequent interpolation of musical numbers from the outer play maintain the freewheeling feeling of a music hall. Sadly the actors do not use microphones, and music director Mark Mullino’s band is mixed so loud that solos have the tendency to fade into the background.
It is a testament to William R. Park’s direction that no guiding hand is evident besides Campbell’s duties as master of ceremonies. Park successfully turns the actors into a discombobulated group of cockneys and then set them loose.
The impoverished design concept sets the stage for a bare set that does not feel like a bare set. As it is only natural that this crude acting company would travel light, they create half a dozen locations, with a few sticks of furniture and a revolving backdrop, from which the scenes fold out on flats that reel, like a drunken Rubik’s Cube, during the set changes.
Kristin Moore’s period costumes focus on the troupe—perhaps giving a clue as to who the story is really about—and actors run around in their skivvies, changing characters by simple techniques like putting on a different hat.
Despite its shortcomings, Drood creates an experience that feels like what a 21st century audience would expect from a 19th century pantomime and music hall. Then again, maybe I'm missing the point.
If none of the elements come together to make a compelling drama, they do construct a fascinating show. It possesses the whimsical charm of the Rude Mechanicals’ performance at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that bridges the gap, if only for 20 minutes, between royals and peasants.
And the cast absolutely revels in the mistakes that make serious theater bad. But somehow, by doing this, they elevate the action through a sacrilegious catharsis similar to what Medieval morality plays, like Johan Johan, used to sanctify the religious themes that they mocked.
Make no mistake; this is an ambitious musical. It is Poor Broadway at its best and relies on a shared experience between the cast and audience, not handy dialogue or a grand scenic design, for its success. And although the play may not appeal to diehard musical fiends or plot junkies, this production breaks down the barrier between actors and audience, offering a glimpse of an honest, shared experience.