|Greg Mansfield, Jemi Kostener Mansfield, and Sam Roberts|
By Tina Arth
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current offering, Death By Design, is a light-hearted murder-mystery-farce that asks little of its audience other than hearty enjoyment. The script, kind of a mash-up of Agatha Christie, Noel Coward, and the Marx Brothers (with just a touch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), is laden with clever one-liners, plot twists (some predictable, some not), and unabashed slapstick. Director Susan Giberson has chosen her cast well, and directed them to go after every possible laugh like terriers with a rat’s nest – subtlety has little place on stage in this production.
Playwright Rob Urbinati’s story is set entirely in the living room of Cookham, an estate near London, in 1932. Fictional playwright Edward Bennett (Ira Korum) and his uber-diva actress wife, Sorel (Jemi Kostiner Mansfield) have retreated to their country house to lick their wounds after receiving devastatingly bad reviews on their latest play, each blaming the other for the show’s poor reception. The stage gradually fills with the arrival of unexpected and eccentric houseguests (plus the staff – a maid and chauffeur who provide a running commentary on the antics of their betters). A guest, the well-connected and lecherous politician Walter Pearce (Gregory Mansfield), is apparently slain; everyone is potentially a suspect, and it’s left to Bridget (Teresa Chrisinger), the maid and true-crime aficionado, to solve the mystery.
Korum and Kostiner Mansfield have the right chemistry to pull off their mercurial and sometimes violent relationship: when sparks fly, they may be passion or they may involve flying vases. Helped by copious quantities of whiskey, Korum is calmly sardonic throughout, despite his eccentric wardrobe choices that do nothing to disguise the wounds he has sustained from his wife’s frequent tantrums. Kostiner Mansfield moves smoothly from seductress to hellion, shifting from languor to fury in the blink of an eye. A personal favorite of mine is Eric (Sam Roberts), the fiery anti-establishment radical who inexplicably appears on the scene and spends the night hurling his social-justice warrior invective at rest of the cast.
The broadest physical comedy falls to Priscilla Howell (as the bohemian artiste Victoria Van Roth). Playing on the character’s unusual grooming choices, extraordinary dancing, and truly awful artworks, Howell succeeds in making us laugh (and groan) while repelling the houseguests (especially the uptight Pearce).
Chrisinger’s “Bridget” is the real star, and she dominates the stage (and the household) with a stolid Irish determination and a dose of common sense. Her accent is consistent (always a plus when dealing with British comedy), and her timing precise. Although she is often quietly perched stage left, the audience cannot help but watch her as she uses her mobile face to silently comment on the insanity around her; when she speaks, her sardonic disdain for her employers and their guests makes it clear that she is really in charge.
Lights, sound, costuming and technical effects all complement the scene - from the timing of the gunshot knocking down Van Roth’s beloved painting and the strobes that partially illuminate each potential murderer to the bizarre match between Sorel’s bright crimson hair color and the lavish draperies. These and dozens of other touches help to keep the comedy moving and provide an internal consistency to the absurd story.
Like many farces, the script and stagecraft sometimes wear thin in Act II – we know the characters’ quirks, we’ve seen the running gags one time too many – but Giberson has paced the show well; it runs under two hours with intermission, and this helps to keep the audience engaged. Urbinati has laced the show with enough witty throwaway lines to amuse an alert audience – I particularly enjoyed his prescient sporadic barbs about cuts in government funding for the arts. The show is generally PG-13 – appropriate for older children, although many of the best lines may be wasted on them.
Death By Design runs through Saturday, May 6th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 SW Fifth Street, Beaverton, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.