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March 4, 2011

Lifeline fails to resurrect Collins's classic mystery

Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone is considered to be the world’s first detective novel. It set up genre conventions that are commonplace (and in some ways even clichéd) today, like red herrings and the detective solving the mystery by reconstructing the crime. It is also written as a series of narratives, which allow for ample commentary on Victorian society. This complicated structure, social commentary, and tired conventions make it particularly difficult to adapt for a modern audience in a different medium. Lifeline Theatre’s production doesn’t quite manage to overcome these difficulties, although their acting and staging are, as usual, quite good.

The Moonstone is about the theft of the Moonstone diamond during noblewoman Rachel Verinder’s 18th birthday party. The narrative of Collins’ story is written as a number of vignettes by extremely well-drawn and distinctive characters who not only tell the story, but offer their perspectives and criticism of Victorian society. This makes the tale much more than a detective story. It becomes a document of the time in which it was written. This sort of thing doesn’t really transfer to the stage, for a play is focused on the action, while the novel is much more rooted in customs, propriety, and convention.

Yet one must tell the story somehow, and the adaptors of Lifeline Theatre’s version keeps very closely to the narrative. The result is not quite as exciting as it could’ve been. In fact, it’s structured very much like a written work, as the characters explain what will happen before it does. For example, the butler describes the boredom of a dinner party before the actors act out a dinner party. Several characters read extremely long letters at different points during the play. In the end, there’s just way too much talk, and it gets boring. The climax—which I will leave as a mystery­—is an exception, as well it should be.

The mystery itself is also a little dull. It’s just too commonplace, considering we live in the days of CSI and bookstores filled with thrillers. There’s just no way to capture the excitement that the original readers of the world’s first locked-room mystery felt.

Also, Collins’s distinctive characters are not always captured by the cast. The actors are quite good, but they’re just playing the wrong parts. Gabriel Betteridge, the butler, is a grumbly old man with a disdain for the weaker sex and a weak spot for the family he’s served for many years. He’s certainly not simply the loyal manservant with a Robinson Crusoe obsession that Sean Sintski performs. Rachel Verinder (Anne Sonneville) is a young woman with a fiery temper and a willful character, yet Sonneville’s portrayal does not capture any of that fierce passion on stage. She is soft-spoken, and even in her scenes of anger, there are undercurrents of gentleness in her voice. Dave Skvarla’s Sergeant Cuff (a precursor of Sherlock Holmes) is supposed to be an almost omniscient detective with a weakness for roses, not a funny old man who doesn’t take himself seriously enough for the audience to appreciate his complexity.

Lifeline’s staging, however, is rather good. Using the cast to serve as props is particularly entertaining. For example, when a character throws herself into quicksand, a group of actors below, reaching their hands to her, acts as the quicksand. The novel also takes place in a large number of different locales, and to accommodate this, the stage is partitioned into two levels, sidestepping the need to constantly rearrange the stage. This stage design is also used to great effect for difficult scenes such as ones on cliffs or underwater.

However, creative staging doesn’t make up for a sheer inability to adapt the source material to the stage. In the end, Lifeline’s Moonstone is dissatisfying both in terms of creating an interesting story and adapting its source.

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