What They Did In The Shadows – Arsenic & Old Lace
Mortimer: Aunt Abby, how can I believe you? There are twelve men buried down in the cellar and you admit you poisoned them.
Abby: Yes I did. But don’t think I’d stoop to telling a lie.
In a world where insanity is the norm, the sane are ostracized. Welcome to the Brewster’s, a family related (quite literally) by blood. Here you’ll meet two sweet old ladies who wouldn’t hurt a fly, or so it seems. Under this veil of etiquette and old lace, lay secrets that would be an offer even Vito Corleone might refuse. ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ takes us through a night at the Brewster home, giving us a taste of the family and its deranged members – two homicidal aunts, one criminal nephew with a standby plastic surgeon and another who believes himself to be President Theodore Roosevelt – as seen by perhaps the only sane member of the family: Mortimer Brewster. This Broadway hit was originally conceived by Joseph Kesselring and was later adapted on film during World War II by the legendary Frank Capra, with Cary Grant as Mortimer.
‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ as a black comedy is a masterpiece of subtlety and understatement with a twist of fortune, making the sinister hilarious – because when you’re at the Brewster’s, their wine is surely not your cup of tea.
Aaina’s stage adaptation of the Brewster family seemed modeled after Capra’s film noir. Syndicate Hall oscillated between gasps of horror and peals of laughter as the Brewster’s secrets slowly unfurled. Given the theme of dark humor, the acting involved walking a tightrope between the comical and the macabre.
The comic timing was the stuff of legend. There were scenes when the audience hung on every syllable unsure whether they should be laughing or staring mortified, and then laughed anyway. Ashwin’s role as Mortimer was a crowd hit. He was in his element on stage, delivering a natural and fluid performance.
Good acting is a mix of instinct and reaction, and Ashwin took both to a whole new level when not only did he react to his co-actors, but also to the audience. Some of his fourth wall breaks left the crowd in splits. His chemistry with Elaine (Malika) was beautiful as well.
Abby (Abiha) hardly had the mannerisms of an old lady, and she and a few other characters lacked voice modulation for most of the play. Kesselring’s and Capra’s genius lay in how gentle and lady-like they made their characters, and how you would never consider them capable of murder. Martha (Prakriti) was way better in this regard. Her composure when she off-handedly spoke of murder in the same line as drinking tea cracked up the crowd. Also, a big thumbs up to the both of them for being able to maintain a constant hunched back for the titanic duration of the play. The entire production seemed to drag once the first act was over and considering how well the shock value of murderous old ladies played out, a shorter duration would have done it wonders.
Uday as Jonathan was terrifying, and the first step he took on stage ushered a palpable gasp from the crowd. His cold aura visibly dominated the stage as he prowled around. He managed to keep a straight face despite the audience laughing and passing comments, a near-impossible feat. Sadly, a shocking number of characters turned their backs to the audience while speaking. Shiv’s performance as the eccentric Dr. Einstein was not helped by his alleged and non-existent German accent, and he went slightly overboard with his acting. Still, there were some redeeming moments when the crowd found his brand of humor amusing.
Acting aside, the Lights and Sound department did a fantastic job. Each scene was blended with a live band performing backstage and the shade of blue they used to indicate darkness gave the set an eerie touch. The set was fairly well designed to fit all the demented elements of the Brewster household.
However, there were times when members of the production bumped into the set causing visible damage; not quite how we expected AAINA to “bring the house down”.
So we’ve placed the pros and cons on either side of the beam balance. But what is the ultimate taste we’re left with in our mouths? Aaina’s main production did have glitches, but that’s not what you remember when you leave. Theirs was a performance that was a cocktail of horror and humor, with a splash of innuendo – a drink you’re not likely to forget soon. And once you’re through gulping it down, you may just have time to say, “How delicious!”