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Spirited performance: NYSTI’s The Killings Tale.

Murder Most Entertaining
By James Yeara

The Killings Tale
By W.A. Frankonis, directed by Ed. Lange

New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, through Oct. 26

The Killings Tale, the New York State Theatre Institute’s latest world premiere, mixes healthy doses of Agatha Christie, Phantom of the Opera, and bardolatry. This homegrown production, in the words of star John Romeo (Will Shakespeare) during Sunday’s curtain call, is all mystery wrapped around a little show-business legend. The Killings Tale, an imaginative riff on a week in William Shakespeare’s life during the first production of Macbeth, was workshopped at NYSTI in 1999; in its first full production, it features NYSTI’s usual solid stagecraft and craftsmanlike theatrics from its cast. The play will please fans of mysteries and NYSTI.

The play features set designer Victor A. Becker’s three-story proscenium stage depiction of the Globe Theater, and director Ed. Lange makes full use of every inch of the set. As in Agatha Christie’s well-constructed production-proof mysteries, The Killings Tale places a group of characters in a special locale and knocks them off one by one. As the corpses mount, the tension rises. As in Christie, there’s a school of red herrings and motives aplenty: There’s the Catholic conspiracy spawned by Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James and the Parliament, there’s witchcraft, there’s the Puritans’ desire to close down the vice that is theater, there’s jealousy among actors, there are ghosts, and there are at least three love triangles including two that feature the Puritan scourge, “man-love.” Director Lange keeps all the red herrings swimming and his cast focused and moving around the Globe’s multi-levels—and even steps in to play the frustrated fictional actor Uric Strangewidge (the originally cast actor was injured at the last minute).

The Killings Tale begins with swelling organ music (all that’s needed is a crashing chandelier to make the Phantom of the Opera nod more of a head knock), the darkening of the lights, and the appearance of a specter on the third level of the Globe. When the organ silences, the specter vanishes, and the lights come up on Shakespeare, Will Kempe (Joel Aroeste), and Richard Burbage (John McGuire) in the fictional Nell Dancer’s (Mary Jan Hansen) London tavern. They’re toasting the opening of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and bemoaning that “when it comes to women, men are always wrong.” In quick order it’s revealed that Shakespeare is having an affair with the flame-haired temptress Nell, and that Thomas Stone, a young actor in the company, has been murdered at the Globe.

Constable Colin Makepeace (David Bunce), a Puritan with a Puritan’s grudge against the theater, is on the case, and the clues and motives gather as fast as the bodies are discovered: Stone is connected to the Gunpowder Plot and to “man-love” by way of Henry Cuffe (Ron Komora). Another young actor, Richard Farrier (Robert Dalton), is also found to be part of the “man-love” group, as is Herbert Porter, killed a year earlier in similar fashion as Stone. Burbage is found to have taken out insurance policies on all of his actors. When the murdered are done in, ways are found to connect the deaths to Shakespeare’s plays. Nell rejects Shakespeare for Makepeace, even as Nell holds seances for the players and for Porter’s widow, Jane (Kathryn Lange), who is also Will Kempe’s niece. Everyone is given motive and opportunity, and only when they show up dead is a suspect character taken off the list.

While The Killings Tale would be better served at a blistering 90 minutes than the leisurely two-plus hours here—there are too many standing-around-at-Nell’s scenes, and there’s too much running around the Globe listening to the wind rush, chains rattle, and doors slam—there is some wonderful wordplay that captures Shakespeare’s metaphor-rich speech. As the Globe’s gatekeeping couple, Michael Steese and Carole Edie Smith are particularly adept at hurling epithets like “Mistress Bulgy Bottom” and “Master Shiverbones” at each other. The familiarity of the cast—these are NYSTI stalwarts, all—compensates for some of the lingering; as Burbage says, “We play together or we play poorly.” NYSTI does togetherness better than anyone, and that makes tolerable the waiting around.

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