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To praise with faint damnation

"Night Must Fall's" a "hedunit"

NIGHT MUST FALL: Community! Courtesy photo

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After watching three professional plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, my wife and I traveled six hours to catch the opening night of Night Must Fall at Olympia Little Theatre. As she drove, we dialed our expectations down. Community theater, including OLT, can and should be inconsistent in quality. That's what any reasonable person expects when unpaid actors, often untrained enthusiasts, assemble to put on a show. I don't want OLT to be OSF, nor do I judge it by the same standards I apply to Capital Playhouse or Harlequin. Those companies pay their actors and charge a lot more. They have training programs, yes, but cast mostly seasoned actors in principal roles. If allowance for scale and ability makes me harsher on companies of veterans, so be it.

Director Pug Bujeaud, however, is no beginner. I expect her to know how to block for three-quarter thrust, and she does. She and Matt Moller designed a beautiful set. The script, first written by Emlyn Williams in 1935 and updated in the '90s, moves along at a satisfying clip. It comes on like a standard whodunit but, along the way, morphs into more of a character study. You'll know who the murderer is long before anybody comes out and says it. Was it Xander Layden's charming sociopath Dan, or any of a handful of seeming red herrings? I found Night similar to J.M. Synge's Gaelic tragicomedy Playboy of the Western World, and not solely because Layden shifts Danny's accent from Welsh to Irish (as Matthew Broderick did on Broadway). Both plays find small-town characters' isolation and sadness driving them into associations they'd ordinarily reject.

Aside from Layden's brogue, almost every accent in this Essex-set production wanders to and fro, leaping counties in a single phrase. I liked Tom Lockhart as Inspector Belsize, but his Scotland Yard inspector sounded as British as the World Series. Again: community theater. I point this out to say there's room for improvement; that room is the OLT stage.

The biggest source of tension opening night wasn't Layden's charming sociopath, it was Diana Purvine's tenuous grasp on her lines. I saw no major derailments, but frequent hesitation kept viewers on edge. Still, she had some fine moments, navigating arcs of a character that could've been monodimensional. I also liked Sara Geiger as Purvine's downtrodden (and, unless I'm misreading two or three clues, closeted) niece.

I know it's praising with faint damnation to say Bujeaud achieves "good community theater" status at OLT, but not every show at OLT or any community theater does. Despite clumsy moments and a lighting instrument that flashed Morse code throughout Act II, we enjoyed Night more than the OSF show we attended the night before (an eggheaded mashup of Medea, Macbeth and Cinderalla). Tickets for that show topped out at $84.50. Which would you rather see?


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