Smile Politely

A century later, The Bat returns to the Virginia Theatre’s stage

Originally The Bat, A Play of Mystery in 3 Acts,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, this sleek two-act adaptation celebrates the anniversary of the historic theatre in which it was performed, on December 28th, 1921. This immersion into the 1920s merges comedy and mystery as a star-studded cast investigates everything from a missing fortune to, as one character describes, villainy of more “diabolical ingenuity.” This century-old whodunit, directed by John Stuff, is as much comedy as conundrum, as it balances visible clue dropping and delighted chuckles.

We meet our protagonist, Cornelia Van Gorder, in the lavish living room of her rented summer mansion. Complete with a staircase, ornate wallpaper, enormous French windows, and bookshelves brimming with leather-bound stories, Cornelia’s surroundings give the audience nooks and crannies to explore. Our heroine is an eccentric, accomplished woman, with a flair for, among other things, Sherlock Holmes-esque nascent crime-solving techniques. Impressively modern, Cornelia’s character goes beyond Ms. Marples一 or possibly Agatha Christie一 as she wryly drops whips such as “Enemies are an indication of character.” Cornelia, portrayed by Suzanne Aldridge, Centennial High School’s beloved director, returns from backstage to center limelight一 or, often, candlelight. A thunderstorm and power issues cause lights in the mansion to flicker or extinguish, obscuring nefarious characters, hiding misdeeds, and eliciting thrills. Set and Light Designer, David Robertson, composes careful viewpoints for the audience with clever lighting. Rounding out the meticulously designed environment, Cindy Havice (Properties Designer & Set Decorator) and Laura Vavrin, (Costumes) give the scenes period-accurate, textured details. Audiences can look forward to clues, keys, and candles.

This playful farce, this murder-mystery is often a comedy of errors, full of failed schemes, suspicions, and paranoia. Lizzie, Cornelia’s long-time maid, is a wailing, hilarious augury, predicting everything from destitution and demons to death and doom. The 1920’s crass Cassandra, Lizzie, portrayed expertly by Anita Stein, punctures tense moments with riotous hysterics and hairpin timing. Before long, audiences are introduced to the series of comic characters that round out this excellent ensemble production. Detective Anderson, fan-favorite Grant Morenz, shines and draws all eyes, with snappy, brusque pronouncements, and blustering, huffy confidence. Dismissive of Cornelia’s concern, the Detective collects eye-rolls and giggles alike, his condescension and wild interrogative questions evoke a cocky gumshoe一 a Long Island Inspector Lestrade. Meanwhile, the butler of the house, Billy, (John Tilford) has a dearth of dialogue, with only curt, terse statements, to which he brings natural physical comedy and narrative structure.

As the titular “Bat” prowls, notorious and unknown, all characters seem to be sneaking around for one reason or another. Michael Steen is instantly captivating as the suave, smooth, and occasionally suspicious Dr. Wells, dispelling questions with easy charm. Young lovers, Dale and Brooks, played by Maddie Henson and Ryan Gossett respectively, are sweet and rib-tickling, with all the endearing immaturity and awkwardness of a secret budding tryst. Rounding out our suspects, as well as this star-studded cast are Andy Blacker, Aaron Clark, and Jim Dieker, all with suspect motivations and questionable behavior.

Although the inspiration for Bob Kane’s iconic caped crusader, Batman, The Bat of the 1920s seems to be a potentially devious masked man who may have met his match. Audiences at the Virginia Theater can experience the mystery and mystique of a character that continues to captivate to this day. Ahead of its time in many ways, with prescient topics like the birth of forensics, The Bat still manages to captivate one hundred years later. After playing detective, audiences are encouraged to keep the secret of the plot to themselves, letting others be hypnotized by the timeless joy of a puzzle to be solved.

The Bat: A Comedy/Mystery in Two Acts
The Virginia Theatre
203 W, Park Ave., Champaign
December 29th & 30th
W + Th 7 p.m.

Top photo from The Virigina Theatre Facebook page.

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