Apple Tree’s cast and audience join forces in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
February 22, 1989

The audience is almost as important as the cast in the Apple Tree Theatre’s production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

While the actors are responsible for delivering the witty lines succinctly, the audience is expected to determine how each show will end, and to participate in the acting.

Shy people may not like hissing at the villain every time he enters, as the audience is instructed to do before the production begins. They may consider it strange to flail both arms in the air every time the show’s title is mentioned. And they also may feel uncomfortable striking up conversations with actors who plop themselves down in chairs next to theirs before, during and after performances.

But for the rest of us, it’s all good fun.

Winner of five Tony Awards and nine Drama Desk Awards, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” currently is playing at Summit’s Candlelight Dinner Playhouse as well as at Highland Park’s Apple Tree. The Illinois Theatre Center in Park Forest staged “Drood” earlier this season.

The popularity of this musical play by Rupert Holmes is understandable. In an age when high-powered executives tell us what we will see on television, “Drood” lets the audience create a do-it-yourself show.

“Drood” is a play within a play. The Apple Tree cast portrays a troupe of actors from the fictional Music Hall Royale, who are performing the play and mugging for the audience. Confused?  Think of it as an episode of “Moonlighting,” in which cast members regularly address the cameras.

The plot, taken from an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, is a simple whodunit: Who killed young Edwin Drood (Monica Mary McCarthy)?

The suspects include his betrothed, Rosa Bud (Mary Jo Licata); his uncle, John Jasper (Matt McDonald), who also is Rosa Bud’s not-so-secret admirer; a transplanted East Indian orphan named Neville Landless (Scott Calcagno), and an opium den mother called the Princess Puffer (Alene Robertson).

As the trollop with a heart of gold, Robertson is a hysterical standout. A three-time Jefferson Award winner, Robertson is true to her character whether she’s haughtily throwing around her impressive cleavage or singing a tender song about a time long past. Her woebegone facial expressions are perfectly offset by her voice, which ranges from gravelly to serene.

McCarthy has the more difficult role of engaging an audience’s attention playing the “famous male impersonator” who portrays Edwin Drood. McCarthy has her most humorous moments when she’s acting out the role of the impersonator.  As Drood, she’s a little too petite and feminine to be believable, even as a very young boy.  But as the prima donna impersonator Alice Nutting, McCarthy is just snooty enough to be funny.

The actors, directed by Gary Griffin, work well together. Some of the evening’s biggest laughs come from the entrance of Neville and Helena Landless, played by Calcagno and Vikki Barrett.  Both actors are experts at using physical humor to best advantage. As the shy Rev. Crisparkle, who hides a secret past, Paul Sass uses understated awkwardness to win the audience over.

And when Bruce Lorie and Paul Pement make their entrance as the derelicts, their labored speech and goofy mannerisms are reminiscent of the lovable dwarfs in Walt Disney’s “Snow White.”

There are a few clunkers in “Drood.” The actors occasionally deliver such groaners as, “She was known as the orthopedic singer – she sang in all the joints.”

And one of the most striking scenes also is the most out of place. After Rosa spurns him, Jasper heads to an East End opium den, where he experiences a drug-induced hallucination. The way the nightmare comes to life is surprising and innovative, but the modern-dance moves and costumes seem jarring in the flow of the period piece. They don’t belong in a Dickens story.

The missteps are mostly forgotten by the show’s end, when cast members playfully lobby for votes on who the designated killer will be. Because the audience is such an integral part of “Drood,” it also shares some of the blame if the show proves boring.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” will continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 6 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday through March 19 at the Apple Tree Theatre, 593 Elm, Highland Park. Ticket prices range from $13 to $16. Reservations: 432-4335. 

February 22, 1989

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