That girl is poison

The person responsible for changing stage sets must have gone home following this opening performance of Strong Poison, and taken a bath in Absorbine Jr., their aching muscles desperately needing some type of pain relief.

On Oct. 22, the Manitoba Theatre Centre opened its 2009-10 season, thus resuscitating Canada’s oldest regional theatre after its summer of dormancy, belying the belief that flowers bloom only in spring.

Strong Poison is part of a series of plays that playwright Frances Limoncelli adapted from Dorothy Sayer novels, each of them centering around Lord Peter Wimsey’s exploits. It opens with a judge (David Warburton) giving instructions to the jury in the murder trial of Harriet Vane (Miriam Smith) who stands accused of administering arsenic to her lover/partner Philip Boyes, both Vane and Boyes being writers — Boyes of murder mysteries.

As the poisoning occurred very close to the bitter separation of Vane and Boyes, Vane is a prime suspect. Apparently Boyes, a leader of the libertarian movement, had refused to marry Vane, claiming he did not believe in that institution. Apparently, the refusal to marry was merely a test of Vane’s devotion to him. When he did request Vane to marry him, she became insulted and broke off their affair. The case is nearing its conclusion with everyone believing, without doubt, that Vane was guilty. Everyone, that is, except for Sir Peter (Greg Ellwand) who, while watching the trial, has fallen in love with Vane.

This synopsis highlights an undercurrent to the play. The play is set in the 1920s when the suffragette movement was at its peak. Although never specifically mentioned, there are several strong references to feminist issues.

Kudos to director Steven Schipper, who has done a masterly job of directing this play. Kudos also to Judith Bowden, the set and costume designer, who lies luxuriating in her well-deserved Absorbine Jr. Bath. This is a play of soundbites, where the set changes every five minutes, or so it seems. Actors are still in the midst of reciting their lines while tables and chairs slide across behind them into position for the next scene, stage backdrops dropping like flies.

Do not be dismayed by the overacting that takes place in the opening. It will continue throughout the play. In an overhead comment, someone said “This is not a play of acting, but one of performing.” This may not necessarily be a correct statement, as there are some exceptional theatrical performances taking place, particularly by Ellwand, who rapidly endeared himself to the near full-house audience — but it is a correct observation. The opening scene clarifies why this is the case.

In the opening scene, the judge is sitting on the second level in a chair that near dwarfs him. Assembled below him, like chess pieces, are some of the main characters who are poised like mannequins. They are mannequins of their stereotyped roles indicating that you are about to watch a farce — and a very good farce at that.

There are several humorous (actually, outright hysterical) scenes — particularly the séance scene in the second act. Unfortunately, this otherwise exceptional scene was milked far too long for its comic value. It would have profited from being half its length.

Except for the actors playing the roles of Sir Peter and Ms Vane (Ellwand and Smith), each of the others is called upon to play several roles. They do so splendidly. Of particular note in this regard is Gordon Tanner who must be singled out for his foppish roles as Gerald Wimsey, brother of Sir Peter, as well as Sir Impey Biggs, Freddy Arbuthnot and Norman Urquhart; Marina Stephenson Kerr for her portrayals of the dowager duchess of Denver, Eilunid Price and Nurse Booth; and Terri Cherniack for hers of Miss Climpson, Nina Kropofky, Helen Wimsey and Mrs. Pettican.

This is a play to enjoy, not to inspire, as was evidently the audience’s perspective as they gave generously with their applause, but without a standing ovation. If you want to enjoy a light-hearted evening of good comic fare, Strong Poison is your choice.

Strong Poison runs until Nov. 14 at the John Hirsch Theatre (Mainstage) of the MTC.