The Idaho Shakespeare Festival has been producing thriller genre plays for close to a decade now, creating a much-anticipated aspect at the summer theater experience. It’s interesting because many of them, such as 2017’s “Wait Until Dark” and 2011’s “Woman in Black,” rely on moody lighting and an eerie, dark atmosphere — no minor feat in an amphitheater.
But this company has come to excel at it through sharply focused direction by producing artistic director Charlie Fee and splendid acting by a tight ensemble. This season’s “Witness for the Prosecution” is no exception. Here are five reasons this production succeeds:
1: Twists: This classic Agatha Christie tale is filled with surprising twists that will keep you guessing — even if you think you know the story. The plot: Charming Leonard Vole (excellently played by an earnest and thoroughly likable Taha Mandviwala ) is accused in the brutal killing of an older wealthy woman who is enamored of him. He’s on trial for his life, and as the evidence stacks against him, he engenders even more sympathy, and his German wife is his only alibi. Even if you saw the 1957 film, the play takes turns that you might not see coming. And the play can be far funnier than the situation would suggest. For example, the slain woman, described as elderly, is only 56. That line elicited laughter. Apparently, that was ancient for a woman in 1953, when the play was written. (At that time Christie was 63.)
2: Strong performances: The production is perfectly paced under the direction of Fee. The ensemble is a powerhouse, with Aled Davies and Nick Steen turning in stellar performances as opposing counsels. Davies is all heart and sincerity as Sir Robarts, the barrister who pulls all the stops out to tell Vole’s story and paint him in the cloak of innocence. Steen is his perfect foil as prosecutor Mr. Myers. He pushes back against Robarts’ floral approach with facts. Both actors are at the top of their game here. Add in Jodi Dominick as Vole’s wife, Romaine, and the show is a total winner. Dominick is dynamic, searing and seductive (especially in the gorgeous red suit and shoes she wears, designed by costumer Esther M. Haberlen), and in the end, heartbreaking as Vole’s long-suffering wife, who thinks she’s in control of the situation.
3: David Anthony Smith: This veteran company actor has such a well-seasoned sense of timing and delivery as Justice Wainwright, who presides over the trial. He speaks only a handful of lines but delivers each with punch as he effortlessly lobs them to the audience for the laugh. Works every time.
4: The right moment: This play was based on a novella Christie published in 1925 about a murder case with a twist. However, it’s set at a moment in history when court processes were changing from emotion-based persuasion to a more procedural-based approach. Not that emotion and persuasion were not used on both sides, but here the prosecution relies more on a chain of evidence rather than supposition. The defense attorney concocts a narrative to try to sway the jury. This play also speaks to the status of women and foreigners. Here, Romaine Vole holds key evidence that is easily dismissed and discredited because of her status.
5. The look and feel: Gage Williams’ minimalist set has just enough detail to suggest the formality of the British legal system. It quickly and easily transforms from Robarts’ offices to the courtroom with just a few moves of the furniture. The dialects are spot-on. The performers were coached by actor and consummate craftsman Lynn Robert Berg, who also turns in a strong performance as Mayhew, Vole’s solicitor (lawyer).
Go see it
“Witness for the Prosecution,” Idaho Shakespeare Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise
- Dates: June 15, July 3-5, 9-10, 13-14, 17-19, 23, 25-28
- Individual tickets: $35-$52 weekends, $28-$42 weekdays. $22 for students with ID any night at IdahoShakespeare.org / 208-336-9221