Monday, March 17, 2014

"The Westing Game" pleases audience at geauga Lyric Theater Guild

Before the curtain went up at Geauga Lyric Theater Guild’s production of “The Westing Game,” the three tween boys sitting behind me were discussing Ellen Raskin’s book, on which the play is based.  They were trying to figure out how the director was going to stage the mystery which takes place in various settings, “too many to put on the stage.”  They decided that the book would be a better movie because of the special effects, such as explosions and disappearances, that “had to take place or the show would ‘suck’.”

“The Westing Game,” also titled “Get a Clue,” is a 1979 Newbery Medal winning novel which has been transformed into a movie and play. The Newbery Medal is awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children for publications aimed at young people.  

The book/play centers on Sam Westing, a wealthy manufacturer, his sixteen potential heirs, and an attempt to solve the mysteries concerning his death.  Was it a murder?  If so, who did it?  And, who will solve the crime and get the inheritance?

The heirs are chosen to live in the Sunset Towers apartments on the shore of Lake Michigan, somewhere near Milwaukee.  They are brought together by Westing with the intent of dividing them into groups of two, each set given some clues, all of which center on the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.”  Each person is given $10,000 to play the game.  This is their inheritance unless they are the one to solve the mystery.  If they are the best detective, they will inherit Westing’s $200 million fortune and become the owner of Westing Paper Products.

Sounds like a book, movie and play aimed at middle school audiences?  It is, and that is both the positive and negative of the script. 

The plusses are that the play is family friendly, the language and plot are simple to follow, there are no objectionable words or situations, and it gives the cast a chance to create many interesting characters.  

The main negative is that the format is written by a book writer, not a dramatist.  The form used is written language.  Spoken and written language have different vocabularies and sentence lengths.  It is often difficult to sound authentic while trying to speak written language instead of dialogue. 

Another problem is that the book format allows for the creation of multi-settings and actions , such as 14 different apartments and a restaurant, as well as explosions, that are nearly impossible for theaters, especially money-strapped community theatres, to create on small stages. 

Considering the limitations of the script and stage space, the Geauga Lyric Theatre production, as directed by Angela Miloro-Hansen, is an acceptable community theatre staging of “The Westing Game.”

The production incorporates some nice video designs by Jonathan Klein, thanks to the cooperation of the Tudor Manor Home in Euclid being opened to the theatre for filming due to the generosity of the Friends of Henn Mansion, a group dedicated to restoration and preservation of the manor.

There is clever use of pictures of the cast of characters around the proscenium arch being lit up as the characters are identified and perform.

There are some good performances in which real people emerge.  Included in these are Cara Battagia as Dani, Meg May as the Judge, and Evan Graham as Theo. 

Some of the cast found themselves acting, rather than creating real people.  Unreal gestures, and affected pronunciations made for problems.  Some of this may have been caused by the script’s creation of unreal characters with little motivations to speak some of the lines. 

Opening night found some of the cast stumbling and forgetting their lines, resulting in a member of the cast feeding the errant cast members their lines.  Cuing on-stage did help the verbally stumbling actor, but it is a frowned upon performance action.

Capsule judgment:  The tweens behind me expressed their satisfaction at the end of the play, as did the large audience who loudly applauded approval for their performing friends, relatives and neighbors. 

“The Westing Game,” with sponsorship by Middlefield Banking, runs through March 30, 2014 at the Chardon Theatre, 101 Water Street, on the square in downtown Chardon.  For tickets cal 440-286-2255 or go to