Idaho Shakespeare Festival dials in the fun at opening night

Frim Fram Four will jazz up Idaho Shakespeare Festival Greenshows this season .
Frim Fram Four will jazz up Idaho Shakespeare Festival Greenshows this season . Idaho Statesman file

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival opened Saturday with a nearly sold-out house, a festive atmosphere, a slight breeze, overcast skies and a rivetingly fun mystery to solve on stage.

Frederick Knott’s theatrical chestnut “Dial ‘M’ For Murder,” a clever, twisting British thriller, unfolds and then folds in on itself. Knott’s play made its Broadway debut in 1952. Alfred Hitchcock adapted it for film in 1954.

The kernel of the story concerns a character the audience knows to be innocent being framed for murder.

It’s remembered as a spine-tingler, and maybe in its day it held more chills. This production is peppered with humor, the occasional nod to the film and our current obsession with “Law & Order”-type shows. It’s less scary and more a mystery of wit.

Margot Wendice (Robyn Cohen in her ISF debut) is the beautiful, wealthy wife of former tennis pro Tony (Jonathan Dyrud in his ISF debut). Their marriage is rocky. Rocky enough that Margot had an affair a year previous with Max Halliday (Nick Steen), an American crime writer who has written 52 ways to commit murder for TV. Driven by greed and jealousy (and a bit of psychosis) Tony plots to have Margot murdered by Swan (Dougfred Miller), an old college chum who tends toward the criminal.

When the attempt goes awry, it’s Swan who ends up dead. Tony is caught in the twist and frames Margot. Will Detective Hubbard (Aled Davies) figure out the truth or play into Tony’s game?

Director Charles Fee injects a bit of elegant froth into the proceedings. He uses a wonderful technical device to propel the story: a large LED screen that visually displays the drama’s 10 telephone calls with Skype-like sessions that are produced as if they could be from Hitchock’s film.

Russell Metheny’s black and white, deco Chelsea flat makes a beautiful setting. Joe Court’s soundscape moves from quirky to creepy, underscoring the tension under Rick Martin’s moody lighting. Kim Krumm Sorenson’s jewel-toned costumes for Margot pop off the stage, and the men’s wardrobes are perfectly dapper.

Cohen creates Margot as a woman desperate to save her marriage, so much so that when things start to go wrong, she believes Tony’s lies even more. It’s hard to watch, but she sells the character’s predicament. Steen is suave and sincere as Max, who truly loves Margot. He brings all his cleverness to bear as Tony’s trap tightens.

Miller plays Swan with just the right level of creepy. Tony doesn’t have to push far for him to agree to the murder. Davies makes a delightful Hubbard, with Colombo-esque misdirection but a dogged need to find the truth.

But it’s Dyrud’s amoral Tony that is the most fascinating. It’s fun to watch the wheels turn as he improvises his way through his own web of lies. In the end, the mistake he makes is so small and when he finally figures it out, it’s delightfully satisfying.

Saturday also kicked off a new Greenshow. The Fool Squad retired their comedy routine at the end of last season. The Frim Fram Four hit the stage before the show, playing appropriate jazz standards and an original theme song. It was so much fun, all they need now is a dance floor.