Theatre review: The 13th Chair – 95 year old relic is oddly amusing

Studio 58 reaches to the back of its dusty bookshelf to present the oddly amusing The 13th Chair, on stage now through December 4, 2011.

Gathered at the home of New York aristocrats Roscoe and Alice Crosby to celebrate their son’s engagement to commoner Helen O’Neil, the group decides to spice things up with a séance.  The evening quickly turns to murder though as one of the guests is stabbed to death, at the same moment the suspect in another murder is about to be revealed by medium, Madame La Grange.  Enter the bumbling police inspector who, with the aid of La Grange, helps solve both murders.

From all accounts the original theatrical production and the subsequent 1929 movie versions (it was released simultaneously as both a silent film and a “talkie”) of The 13th Chair were played straight; a regular whodunit along the lines of an Agatha Christie mystery complete with a selection of eccentric suspects and a solution to a murder that only the playwright saw coming.

Fortunately director Sarah Rodgers decides to play it mostly for laughs with a fine attention to detail, very clever pieces of business for her actors and the underscoring of the broad reactions with music from pianist and composer Matt Grinke.  Combined with Kazz Leskard’s delightfully goofy portrayal of Inspector Donohue, as a sort of Hercule Poirot / Colombo / Maxwell Smart hybrid, this bit of turn-of-the-century fluff really works.

Kazz Leskard as Inspector Donohue in the Studio 58 presentation of The 13th Chair.  Photo by Emily Cooper.
Kazz Leskard as Inspector Donohue in the Studio 58 presentation of The 13th Chair. Photo by Emily Cooper.

In addition to Leskard’s performance, that had my seatmate also thinking of a similarly clumsy Inspector Clouseau, Lindsay Winch is another one to watch as the socialite Mary Eastwood.  Winch takes great care to extend her reactions to their logical conclusion and were they not so fun to watch I would almost be tempted to say she tries to steal several scenes.  Ryan McDonald and Tim Carlson as father and son are perfectly matched when they play off each other and Adam Weidl is the perfect foil to the Inspector.  Cheyenne Mabberley provides a confidence in Madame La Grange as she fools these rich rubes, wisely playing against any eccentricity that would compete against Leskard’s Inspector.

Scenographer David Roberts provides a wonderful art deco Crosby parlour room which is complimented by Mara Gottler’s realistic 1920s costumes, all lit by Darren Boquist who gets to have his own bits of fun at times.

Wisely played for laughs, The 13th Chair is a 95 year old relic given new life from some nice performances and Sarah Rodgers deft directorial hand.

4 Out of 5 Stars The 13th Chair

By Bayard Veillet.  Directed by Sarah Rodgers.  A Studio 58 presentation.  On Stage at Langara College’s Studio 58 through December 4, 2011.  Visit http://www.studio58.ca for tickets and information.

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