‘And Then There Were None’ provides engaging take on period piece

April 20, 2018

The UTC’s “And Then There Were None” has shown, despite its limited run, the talent of its creative team to create engaging and socially conscious theater despite community concern over the show’s racist history and insensitive content.

Many of those involved in the show seem to have concluded that the creative team was handed a political hot potato and despite doing the best they could, for various reasons (never their artistic capabilities), failed to fully deal with the show’s inherent problems. The performance I saw Saturday night, however, was not a noble yet unsuccessful effort. In fact, “And Then There Were None” was an impressive display of theater which walked the line between keeping the integrity of Agatha Christie’s original script and the play’s suspense intact while updating the social commentary to better fit the performers’ audience.

The show is a murder mystery in which ten unsuspecting Britons are lured and abandoned on isolated Soldier Island under the auspices of a party. After the characters hear a dramatic recording played accusing each of capital crimes, they begin to die in an order corresponding with a nursery rhyme about ten soldiers dying. The show follows their attempts to find the killer in their midst before they are all murdered. The script is based on Christie’s best-selling mystery novel and is widely admired for the way it sets up a compelling tension and keeps the mystery alive until everyone on stage is dead.

This tension comes, in part, from the way the characters slowly unravel as their numbers dwindle, cracking to reveal their inner pain and pathologies. These deconstructions garnered praise for the display of the diverse and difficult conditions people from all classes and genders experienced in the 1930s. Under the skilled direction of Merrick Mendenhall ’20, the characters in this production were updated, breaking down to reveal a slice of race-, power- and gender-based dynamics present in modern society.

Characters displayed aspects of their life stories throughout the performance, layering subtle traits that combined to form complex characters. With an impressive understanding of their characters’ point of view, all the actors kept a consistent thread throughout the show as they shifted between suspicions and levels of sanity.

General Mackenzie’s (Emily Pollack ’21) existential despair was clearly on display, as was the blind fundamentalist faith of Emily Brent (Amy Ollove ’21), which had magnificently disturbing climbs into hysteria. Dr. Armstrong (Noa Laden ’20) underwent a similar transformation from relative self-confidence into panic and guilt, with a slight insecurity about being a female doctor. The stand-outs were Alina Sipp-Alpers ’21, Blake Rosen ’21 and Isaac Ruben ’21. Sipp-Alpers portrayed Vera Claythorne, a young girl pushed beyond the brink while trying to create her place in the world, while Rosen presented a portrait of elitism turned violent in psychopathic Judge Wargrave. Ruben used the arrogant Captain Lombard to embody the impervious invincibility of an upper middle class white male in 1930s England.

Behind complex characters, the actors created a deeply disturbing murder mystery which stayed true to the tension which defined Christie’s work.

Set designer Sara Gilbert ’21 and costume designer Kat Laurence ’20 set the stage for the impressive world-building. The set perfectly fit the show’s needs, providing a staging area for violent murders, creepy flashbacks and compulsive comfort as well as blending story-significant objects with the rest of the appropriately 30s décor. The costumes were similarly spot-on, with each character given a unique style to subtly reinforce their acting, such as Wargrave’s luxurious, stately fur coat and Captain Lombard’s khaki, colonial suit. The lighting, created by Jacob Bers ’20, also went beyond the expectations to establish time and weather, most noticeably by keeping flashbacks feeling distinctly eerie with blood-red detailing.

“And Then There Were None” was an excellent show. It suffered from occasional stiffness, slightly slow light-shifting and one or two clumsy scene changes, but noticeably less than other student productions and was significantly more interesting than most student productions. While the creators of the show may not have selected “And Then There Were None” as their show, their efforts to create a production that comments on and sparks discussion about our society created a piece of art worth more than one performance.

I understand the decision to cancel all but the one show. Under its first two titles, “Ten Little N—–s” and later “Ten Little Indians,” the story reflects horrific attitudes towards black and Native people and has the potential to harm members of the community. The UTC’s production, however, performed a version stripped of these racist terms and changed the imagery to cut out racist messaging not vital to the show’s message. It’s fair and understandable to want to avoid a production of a play with this history; there are plenty of valid reasons why someone would not be able to separate this production from the history of the show. For the Brandeis population at large, however, the conversations “And Then There Were None” sparks are important and timely. At a time when we as a community must face our complicity in systematic racism, we cannot refuse to engage with art which forces us to confront issues in our society.

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