The season of summer in New England provides a plethora of singular sensations, priceless moments and fun traditions. We boast of our patriotic parades, the tang of salty air on our glorious beaches, waterfront seafood fests and the livin’ is easy. Onstage the grand tradition is for good old-fashioned summer stock shows and in Warren 2nd Story Theatre promises to fill this bill with gusto with both a rousing murder mystery and a sweet old charmer of a play.
We love our traditions in Rhode Island and in our young century 2nd Story has, happily, joined these venerable ranks. This summer the theatre in Warren’s century-old building on Market Street has two plays running in rep, Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever”, both playing now through Labor Day. Each play shares the same swell set but the similarities end there — apart from providing an opportunity to beat the heat with some sheer fun.
This week we’ll concentrate on the murder mystery, I’ll be brave enough to tackle the Coward next week. Frankly, I’m a little nervous. For, you see, in “And Then There Were None” ten guests who may or may not have done something wrong in their pasts have been invited to a mysterious isolated island by someone who may or not be a murderer. Rules of full disclosure dictate me to tell you that I’m one of those guests. But trust me here as I guide you through this mystery, as I both promise not to talk about myself too much nor indicate ‘whodunnit’.
The really fun aspect of the genre fiction that has become such a staple of straw-hat summer stock theatre is that, though the formula is familiar, you never really know how this is all going to play out. That’s a truth that sustained Christie during her 50- year writing career and one that buoys up her own theatrical adaptation of her novel. Sure, the characters and situation, like summer theatre itself, might be stock. But that doesn’t mean it won’t shock and surprise the heck out of you.
Fans of mysteries know well and savor all of the usual suspects, as you will all of the customary ruses and red herrings that abound. I myself portray a nervous Doctor quaking in his boots and if that’s a guilty quiver you see before you, well, I’ll never tell.
The other assorted guests trapped on the isolated “Soldier Island” on a naturally dark and stormy night comprise a wide variety of suspect sorts including a very pretty and pretty plucky heroine, the obligatory butler and housekeeper, a shady detective, a moralistic shrew, a dapper ne’er-do-well, a stern and reptilian Judge, a morose military man and, rounding out the field, the lovable rogue without whom no adventure is truly complete.
It is to this last suspect I now draw your attention, adding my observation based on being stuck on this island with him, that, though he is quite naturally charming, no nicer man has ever had to play the coarsely kidding caddish sort and that calls for considerable acting chops. The character’s name is Captain Phillip Lombard; the actor is Jay Bragan and we spoke a bit whilst waiting for the proverbial axe to fall about all things mysterious.
Last seen on the 2nd Story Stage in “Harvey”, Mr. Bragan is a graduate of the Trinity Rep Conservatory and has, for the past 10 years, been the Head of Performing Arts at Portsmouth Abbey School, directing three productions a year as well as teaching English. Happily, because he’s on summer break, he’s available to be stuck here on Soldier Island in a play directed by one of his teachers at the Conservatory, 2nd Story Artistic Director Ed Shea.
Teaching literature, directing plays and acting all require similar, though not identical, skills. I asked Mr. Bragan what it was like to ‘switch hats’ for his onstage role as Captain Phillip Lombard. “It’s been five years since I’ve acted in a play”, the ever-affable Bragan explains, “and I was a little worried that those skills may have atrophied a bit. But I was surprised at how quickly it all came back. Acting is so experiential that there has been little time to step outside the role and think like a director. And being in a play has been a good reminder to me about what my students have to go through!”
The murder-mystery genre fiction of Agatha Christie is, unlike most plays, an intricate little puzzle that the audience takes great pleasure in trying to solve. Though each of us onstage has a secret past we are also stuck together in a dire situation. To that end, in rehearsal our director, Ed Shea talked a lot about our job as actors to “feed the mystery” as opposed to trying to “play a character” and I asked Mr. Bragan to expound upon that idea.
“When Ed said that we are to “feed the mystery” and not get caught up in out own story, the play really opened up for me. I found that advice to be very freeing. I really began to take in that we are all creating the story together. It took off the self-imposed pressure of trying to be interesting and helped focus our collective attention on each other and not ourselves.”
“Back at the Conservatory”, Mr. Bragan continues, “Ed taught us what an onstage “event” is. It’s essential that actors know what the event specifically is in a scene so they can play it; otherwise that scene would have no focus. In my first scene in “And Then There Were None” I arrive with another character and we talk about the mysterious party we’ve been invited to on this formerly deserted house on an isolated island. We flirt with each other and establish our relationship somewhat, but the main event needs to be what we say about the house on the island. In this case the audience learns some vital information. If we focused more on our relationship the audience might be confused as their attention would be misdirected. So knowing what the main event is is crucial. I’m always aware of this as a director and am thankful to Ed for teaching such an important lesson.”
In an attempt to try to incorporate the three sides of Jay Bragan, teacher, director and actor, I asked him about the importance of both seeing and participating in live theatre.
“Theatre and literature are both forms of storytelling”, Bragan explains, “and acting is, for the most part, an oral tradition of story telling. Literature is powerful in that it evokes the senses, a good writer creates a world to experience. Agatha Christie has the wonderful ability to give each character their own voice. When I first read the play I was struck by how distinct each character already was just on the printed page. Their tone, syntax, idioms-all of these contributed to a very specific type of person. I found that to be impressive playwriting. The rich characters, as well as the skillfully crafted mystery, make this a delightful play.”
“But”, Bragan points out, “there is the one element that other art forms do not have: theater is live. There is that immediate visceral quality to theater. Theater can help one appreciate literature all the more because all the elements of the story are right there in front of you, all brought to life.”
Jay Bragan and I share a profound joy in bringing these words to life, live for an audience to enjoy. Bragan adds as well how much he “enjoys the 2nd Story audiences. It’s a thrill to see the house filled on a Thursday night. When I come to 2nd Story early I love to see how many audience members are already at the theater or having dinner in the neighborhood. There is warm feeling of community in the air.”
Indeed there is, as well as a spooky air of mystery onstage these days. So, audience, did either of us ‘dunnit’? Again, I’ll never tell. But please join us on Soldier Island and help unravel the mystery, without you and then there truly would be none.
“And Then There Were None” at 2nd Story Theatre, Warren, now through August 31. See listings for details.