Today was the final performance of the Evil Cheez Productions show, The Return of the Rook. Given the “found space” of the Lowry House, Evil Cheez shows have scant technical support, and rely on the script and the performances to entertain the audience. The Rook’s return was generally well played, but the script had some large flaws as an entry into the “whodunit” world.
Wayne Miller is the most prolific playwright in the Huntsville area, and deserves credit for his artistic output, and generally entertaining scripts. His strength, however, is in his interesting, diverse characters, and the minute-to-minute patter of their conversations and relationships. Where he tends to struggle, is properly controlling the overall plot and arc of a story, and The Return of the Rook is a perfect example. This is a whodunit, complete with a halt to the show halfway through Act Two, to allow the audience to voice their opinions about who the guilty party is. The problem is that the suspense is artificial. Miller needs to study the masters in the form, and learn the reasons why they structure their stories the way they do.
In this production, as we approach the climax of the show, there have been two murders. Or have there? One of them, the first “murder” in the show, happens off-stage, though we do see a body…maybe. The only witness to the corpse is having a mental breakdown, so it’s unclear whether the body is actually there, or merely our ability to see her imaginings. More importantly, none of the other characters believe she saw anything. And for the second death, the one the audience actually witnesses, WE are the only ones who know the death has occurred. None of the surviving characters have any idea. So, at the climax of the show, the characters onstage aren’t aware of any murders. Sure, everyone is acting “mysterious”, and there are “dark and stormy nights”, and much discussion about whether the famous killer, the “Rook”, is still alive, but the characters are oblivious to any actual deaths.
As the show has its very long climactic scene, there is one definite killing by the Rook, and another death that may have happened off-stage, though that isn’t clear at all. When one character mentions seeing the Rook carrying a dead body across the field, everyone else onstage ignores that news and continues trying to figure out who the Rook is. The audience is left unsure whether there actually was another killing, or just someone seeing something uncertain in the storm, or whether they were just telling a lie to the other characters. Finally, when the identity of the Rook is revealed, the large cast is mostly absent from the stage, thus missing the mark on the usual all-is-revealed scene for whodunits.
On top of all that, the show is over-long. With a running time of two-and-a-half hours, not counting intermission, it is in need of some easy trimming. For example, after the “secret” death that only the audience is aware of, the next scene consists of a character spending ten minutes detailing why the now-dead person is “guilty”. While it’s believable that the character might think that, and make that speech, it’s a dramatic waste of time, given that it’s the ONE person the audience knows is innocent.
All that said, Miller does write some fascinating characters, and fun dialogue. While the overall journey doesn’t really take us where we need to go, the trip itself is fun and generally entertaining. To achieve greatness, the script needs some major re-writes, but with some quick edits for length, this current story would make for a very fun, relaxed evening of audience-participation theatre.
And the audience participation angle is something that Evil Cheez should dig into. It’s already performing in a very cozy atmosphere, with no one more than 15 feet from the action, and we get to munch popcorn and sip our drinks during the shows. The journey outside to witness the murder, was a fascinating event, with the audience fighting to NOT be standing closest to the Rook. Likewise, the pause before the climactic scene, to let the narrator quiz the audience about “whodunit”, made for some great interactive theatre, as we all shouted out guesses, and tried to explain why. There’s a style of theatre here, which Evil Cheez should explore, because it’s the kind of experience that audiences can’t get sitting at home in front of their electronic streaming devices.
The performances in the show were generally quite good. The Evil Cheez regulars, Jeremy Woods, as the narrator; Tanja Miller, as the “drama queen” wife of the family minister; and Greg Branham, as her husband, turned in their usual nice work. Return performer, Michelle Huguley, as the German doctor, missed the mark a bit with the accent, but was otherwise quite believable. Newcomer Duncan Watkins, as the “slow” groundskeeper, had the biggest challenge, portraying a character with disabilities, but pulled it off quite well.
Miller is a past-master at directing for this space. With a very confining area in which the actors can work, he has figured out the tricks for maintaining interesting stage pictures, and keeping sight-lines clear. Likewise, especially given the constrictions of performing in a home, the technical elements are getting better and better. The music and set dressing were quite well done for this show. The “blackouts” (with hands sliding out from behind stage doors to work the light switches) were a new addition. Unfortunately, the scene breaks in blackout were much longer than they needed to be, leaving the audience blinking for a few seconds, when the lights finally came back on. Another suggestion would be to return to the former arrangement of chairs for the audience. With the sideways orientation, audience members repeatedly had to crane their necks around to see action happening behind them. All that said, there is a fun, visceral feel to an Evil Cheez production, and it’s always a nice change of pace.
Overall, even though the script lacked some needed dramatic structure, and was a bit longer than necessary, it was still an enjoyable evening of theatre. I continue to look forward to Mr. Miller’s next offering.
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The posts on this website will be published AFTER a show closes.
Some productions will receive a version of a review under my byline on AL.com, published during the run. For those, I need to be able to see the show before closing weekend, AND have access to “action” pictures from the show. I don’t always have both, but when I do, those shows will take priority on any weekend when I’m available to see a production.