THE BAT: A SWING AND A MISS
Nowadays, more times than not, new plays are a wham-bam, down-and-dirty, in-and-out in 80 minutes “theater-lite” affair. Not that I’m complaining (I relish any chance to get to bed early), because even with their diminished running time, they are usually vapid, pointless exercises that delve no further than the utterly inane. As a result, they are simply torturous to sit through. On the other hand, back in the Roaring 20′s, when Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s The Bat first hit the boards, going out to the theater was an all night event. So when Theatre 40 announced its revival of the show, I was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to see a three-act extravaganza complete with two intermissions. A real blast-from-the-past old fashioned who-dunnit!
The show is centered around Cornelia Van Gorder (Veronica Cartwright), a society matron who has rented an isolated Long Island estate for the summer. The palatial residence belongs to the Fleming family. Papa Fleming is, or more accurately was, the president of a local bank until he turned up dead. The very same bank has just been robbed of a million dollars, presumably by a now missing employee. Someone does not want Cornelia around and has been making threats on her life if she doesn’t vacate the premises. Not one to be pushed around, Cornelia digs in her heels and decides to don her sleuth’s hat and get to the bottom of all the murder and mayhem.
Thunder, lightning, electrical outages, broken windows, ghosts, secret passages, a notorious serial thief nicknamed “The Bat,” and a cast of possible suspects including Cornelia’s maid (Loraine Shields), her niece (Elizabeth J. Carlisle), a gardener (Michael Perl), a doctor (Stephen Davies), the banker’s son (Ross Alden), his friend (Chris Petschler), a detective (Madison Mason), an amnesiac stranger (Max Bogner) and of course the proverbial butler (Yas Takahashi) all add to the spooky and suspenseful shenanigans. The script, although at times a bit improbable, serves up a series of twists and turns that will keep you guessing as to who the real culprit is.
Upon entering the theater, located within the campus of Beverly Hills High School, you are immediately transported back to the 20′s thanks to the beautiful and intricate set by Theatre 40′s resident designer Jeff G. Rack. His attention to every detail of the mansion’s sitting room sets the tone perfectly. Oddly though, the space behind two doors (one leading to the billiard room and the other to the dining room/kitchen) is left undressed, so whenever a character opens them, sometimes for an extended period of time, the audience is peering off into a gray abyss. It’s jarring to look at and takes you out of the moment. The problem could have been easily solved by having the doors open downstage, or by continuing the set to mask the hallways. For Act III, the action moves to the attic in what proves to be a remarkable set transformation—especially considering that it takes place in a finite space within the short span of an intermission.
The lighting design by Ric Zimmerman and the sound design by Bill Froggatt are as good as it gets in Los Angeles theater. It’s always difficult to have a blackout and still be able to see what’s happening on stage, but Zimmerman’s roving candle light effortlessly moves with the actors around the stage, illuminating the way. The lightning effect is extremely realistic. Froggatt has placed speakers around the theater so the sounds of the storm, creaking floorboards, squeaking doors and windows, crashes, gunshots, and other things that go bump-in-the-night, surround the audience. The result is a chilling and engulfing experience. The costume design by Michele Young captures the essence of the era. The women are decked out in beautiful frocks and the gents are as dapper as can be.
Clearly, director Martin M. Speer has spent an enormous effort in ensuring that the technical aspects of the production are overwhelmingly terrific. Unfortunately though, it seems he’s spent more time on the technical elements than he did with the actors. Whether from a lack of rehearsal or a lack of direction, the entire cast seemed unprepared for the opening night performance. Not terrible, but definitely shaky and unable to fully commit to the task at hand. At times, Ms. Cartwright seemed to have only a passing familiarity with the script, invariably stumbling on lines that were of some importance for advancing the plot. As is often the case when one cast member is stricken with “flub-it is,” it spreads like a virus to the other actors, and that was the case here as several of the players went fishing for their words.
At many points during the show there are several characters standing around doing nothing. Creating an on stage life for an idle character has got to be one of the hardest things for an actor to do. They have to seem involved, but at the same time not be a distraction; most of the cast has not found that delicate balance yet, which is a shame, because they look great and all possess the physical attributes that suit their characters perfectly.
While most of the performances are grounded in some sort of period-piece reality, Mr. Speer has allowed Loraine Shields the freedom to give a completely over-the-top inappropriate turn as Lizzie the maid. She’s chewing so much scenery that she has pieces of other shows between her teeth. She’s loud, obnoxious and well, just plain bad. On the bright side however, she did remember her lines.
In addition to the minimal character development, the director has made some very odd staging decisions as well: At one point, the butler enters with a tray of ice tea and although there is only one person in the room he pours two glasses…neither of which is ever touched; actors make circuitous crosses for no apparent reason; a couch is moved and no one seems to notice it’s in a different place; and all too frequently, Mr. Speer has actors placed all in a row like a police line-up.
All that being said, it’s quite possible that once the actors master the words and get comfortable in their roles, they will more than do justice to their characters and the show. How soon that might happen is anyone’s guess. It could be a week, it could be a month, it could be never. If and when their performances can live up to the technical elements, then The Bat will no longer be a swing and a miss, it will be a home run.
photos by Ed Krieger
Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to end on August 26, 2012
for tickets, call (310) 364-0535 or visit http://www.theatre40.org