Theatre review: Evelyn Strange – this production is dynamite

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Staircase XI’s Evelyn Strange has one of the most fully satisfying act two scenes that I have seen in a long time.  For that reason I’m willing to forgive it for not fully exploiting its film noir treatment.

Evelyn StrangeDon’t get me wrong, there is still much to like about the treatment that this production provides with a wonderful film noir palette, low lighting that casts many shadows and trench coats galore but what seemed to be missing here was that familiar film noir patter of the characters themselves.  It wasn’t until the arrival of Lewis Hake (the appropriately dashing Adam Bergquist) that we got a taste of the banter necessary to fully immerse us into this particular style.

Evelyn Strange (Shauna Johannesen) has amnesia.  Arriving in the private Metropolitan Opera box of self-made socialite Nina Ferrer (Maryanne Renzetti), she is only there because she found tickets to the show in the trench coat she is wearing.  While Nina leaves during the opera’s first intermission, Evelyn finds she is alone with Perry Spangler (Byron Noble), an employee of Nina’s husband who was originally sent to ensure Nina gets home safely.  Spangler, obviously attracted to Evelyn, takes her under his care and for the next two hours we work along with the characters in identifying the reason for Evelyn’s amnesia.  Add murder to the mix and Canadian playwright Stewart Lemoine gives us all the elements of a great murder mystery.

What perhaps came as most surprising is how I found myself drawn deeply into the mystery, caring enough about Evelyn and the other characters to want to know what caused her amnesia; testament to the level of talent on stage.  Lemoine’s interjection of humour also helps by building the tension of the mystery, releasing that tension just a bit with some humour and then starting the entire process once again.  By the time that wonderful second act scene arrives, Lemoine and this cast has so hooked us in that there was an almost audible exhalation from the audience.

The Havana is rarely a production design’s friend and Evelyn Strange suffers from its small confines like so many shows before it.  Stephanie Schwartz works hard to overcome the space’s difficulties but it is Jonathan Tsang’s lighting design and Basha Ladovsky’s costume design that had the most impact.   At one point Director Becky Shrimpton finds it necessary to push a scene into the audience and while she wisely didn’t break down that fourth wall, it made things feel a bit more claustrophobic than usual at the Havana.

While slightly missing the mark in fully immersing us into the film noir style, this Staircase XI production was still a great deal of fun.  And as Fred McMurray might utter if he was narrating this review (and with apologies to Billy Wilder): “he liked it. I could feel that. The way you feel when the cards are falling right for you, with a nice little pile of blue and yellow chips in the middle of the table … it was evident he thought this productoin was dynamite.”

4 Out of 5 Stars Evelyn Strange

By Stewart Lemoine.  Directed by Becky Shrimpton.  A Staircase XI Theatre production.  On stage at the Havana through April 1, 2011.

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