I was excited to see Taproot Theatre's production of "Gaudy Night," because I am a big fan of Dorothy L. Sayers' novel of that name, as well as of her other books, starring Lord Peter Wimsey as an upper-class fellow who is an amateur detective, and who, over the course of several books, falls in love with Harriet Vane, a mystery writer.
In "Gaudy Night," adapted for the stage by Frances Limoncelli, Peter (Jeff Berryman) and Harriet (Alyson Scadron Branner) are still in their courtship days, with Peter proposing regularly and Harriet declining politely.
It is 1935 and Harriet has gone back to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College at Oxford University, because students and faculty alike have been receiving nasty, sometimes threatening, notes. Dean Letitia Martin (Pam Nolte) wants them investigated quietly by someone who understands the fragility inherent in the position of a women's college and who can be discreet.
While there is a certain amount of detecting and clue-gathering by both Harriet and Peter and the mystery of the poison pen letters is solved in the end with no casualties, the mystery is really just an excuse to bring the cast of characters together at a women's college, and to propel the love story between Peter and Harriet.
According to dramaturge Sonja Lowe, Shrewsbury College was based on Somerville College, Dorothy Sayers's alma mater. While women's education wasn't a new concept in 1935, there was still a great deal of prejudice, misunderstanding and hostility around the combination of women and higher learning. Reputations, both of individual students and teachers, as well as of the school as a whole were at stake, and if ruined, could have historical consequences. And even now we struggle with how women can or should balance education and career with family, which was even more the case then.
With the cast of female instructors, the dean and Harriet, and with the female servants and students, we see the story set against the historical context of the women's movement, women's education, women's rights and responsibilities. All of these issues are woven into the lives of the women in the play and they share them with us, with all the confusion and difficulties they engender.
Mrs. Goodwin (Nikki Visel), one of the instructors, is prescient when she says, "Some people's blameless lives are to blame for a great deal." In fact, the cascade of events leading to the poison pen letters stems from exactly that, together with the overlap between traditional family and society and changing women's roles.
Lord Peter Wimsey and his nephew, Viscount Saint-George (Conner Neddersen) run through this rather somber fabric with a much-needed note of humor and, yes, I'll say it, whimsy. Neddersen in particular is a bright note, playing his role with high good spirits. Berryman as Peter and Branner as Harriet have a breezy, gentle, good-humored chemistry between them and they are a delight to watch whenever they are together on stage.
Peter's acceptance of Harriet as an equal is emphasized, with Harriet's realization that she loves him when he says, "Danger will not turn you back, and God forbid it should," and she understands finally that here is someone she can marry without losing her beloved independent spirit.
There are some particularly clever moments in the show. In order to help the audience get all the characters straight, Harriet at one point thinks through the various people involved at the college, and as she names each one, the character appears behind her until finally she has a line-up of possible suspects.
Harriet and Peter spend some time on an imaginary boat punting on the Thames using mime, a pole and a bench. And that wonderful British understatement is in evidence when the criminal is unveiled dramatically, and Mrs. Goodwin takes her in hand, saying, "Come lie down quietly and take an aspirin."
Scenic/Sound Designer Mark Lund and Lighting Designer Roberta Russell are to be credited for the lovely set of an old stately brick building in tree-dappled light, exactly as one might expect a women's college at Oxford to look. Props and set pieces are minimal since the action moves from place to place quickly, with tiny vignettes to move the plot forward and establish details of character.
In fact, while Limoncelli can be credited for doing a remarkable job shrinking down the novel and making it stage-friendly, (there is a great deal of carefully choreographed bustling around from one scene to the next) the show still runs long -- two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission -- so be warned.
"Gaudy Night" runs through October 20 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-781-9707 or visit online at taproottheatre.org.