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From Chicagoland Theatre Reviews
September 17, 2019
By Dan Zeff
Dorothy Sayers was an English writer who ranks among the luminaries of the period in detective writing between the two world wars now called “the Golden Age.” She caused an immediate stir among detective fiction fans in 1923 with her first novel, “Whose Body?,” which introduced the aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey. His Lordship immediately became one of the most enduring amateur detectives of the age.
The Golden Age, most famously represented by the novels, plays, and short stories written by Dame Agatha Christie, was known for its country house settings and often artificial plots and characters, but Christie probably best known for surprise endings that expose the least likely character as the villain. The Golden Age fiction today comes across pretty much as a quaint historical style, upstaged by the gritty realism of the Hard Boiled school initiated by Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler. The Golden Age writers can be read today for their charm and their improbable but fun plots and entertaining characters. But modern detective fiction now belongs to the realistic writers like James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, P. D. James, Sara Paretsky, and Ross Macdonald.
Having said all that, there is still a secure place for Golden Age writers in the history of detective literature and stage adaptations of their works. Dramas by Agatha Christie still appear on area stages today and are appreciated by audiences for their twist-and-turn plots and often elegant, urbane atmosphere. The Lifeline Theatre has had much success staging Sayers novels adapted by company member Frances Lemoncelli, who has a superb feel for the Sayers style in bringing Lord Peter Wimsey to sophisticated life. Her adaptation of “Whose Body?” is a prime example.
“Whose Body?” is not one of Sayers’s best Wimsey stories but it still suggests the virtues that make her better novels icons of the Golden Age. The plot centers on the discovery of a dead man found sitting naked in a bathtub, wearing only a fancy set of eye glasses. Wimsey is intrigued by the corpse and takes on the case as a kind of lark. Complications quickly ensue. There are questions about the identity of the corpse and how he got into the bath. It may be the body of an English financier named Rueben Levy or it may not. Are there actually two murders on offer. Suspects and possible motives abound until, after much investigation and analysis, Wimsey nails the real culprit, a surprise killer in the well embedded tradition of the Golden Age.
The actual circumstances surrounding the killing are a tangle of improbabilities that are difficult to take seriously today. But looking back nostalgically on the writing of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the indulgent reader is likely to forgive much and luxuriate in the ingenious plotting and often droll dialogue that make the best Golden Age writing legitimately entertaining.
“Whose Body?” is Limoncelli’s fourth adaptation of a Sayers novel for Lifeline. As usual, she has built her play on Sayers’s text. There isn’t much physical action but the language carries the evening, especially in the mouths of the ensemble responsible for the vast variety of characters. There are 18 roles, 17 played with enormous versatility by just six actors. Only William Anthony Sebastian Rose III has a single role, Peter Wimsey himself. In the novel, Wimsey comes across as a fatuous caricature of an English aristocrat, though the character toughens up in later novels. Initially at the Lifeline, Wimsey appears like the silly-ass hero of a P. G. Wodehouse tale, but Rose does acquire some gravitas as a production proceeds, including a scene in which he is overcome by memories of his brutal experiences on the battle front of World War I.
The supporting characters cumulatively make a stronger and more entertaining contribution to the success of the revival than His Lordship. They include Scott Danielson as Wimsey’s stalwart valet Bunter, Katie McLean Hainsworth as Wimsey’s savvy mother the Duchess of Denver, John Drea as Wimsey’s friend and co-investigator Inspector Parker, Gladys Horrocks as a household servant caught up in the murder investigation, Joshua K. Harris as Wimsey’s boorish nemesis Inspector Sugg, and Tony Bozzuto as the smug and menacing psychology Julian Freke. Each actor plays at least one additional significant character, creating a vivid panorama of men and women from all walks of English life in the 1920’s.
The Lifeline production beautifully captures the style of the 1920’s in its costumes (designed by Caitlin McLeod and Anna Wooden), its creative multi-level set (designed by Alan Donahue), its atmospheric lighting (designed by Diane D. Fairchild), and the eerie sound bytes designed by Stephanie M. Senior). And a shout out to Carrie Hardin for instilling a multitude of English accents so spot-on among all the actors, some of whom have to shift dialect gears on the instant as they change characters.
The manner exceeds the matter in making “Whose Body?” a satisfactory entertainment. The show looks and sounds just right for its time and place, and director Jess Hutchinson has orchestrated the flow of the action on the intimate Lifeline stage with unobtrusive precision. The narrative may strain the spectator’s credulity but the presentation is a triumph.
From NewCity Stage
September 17, 2019
By Aaron Hunt
Famed mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers’ first book “Whose Body?” introduced both her and her part Fred Astaire, part Bertie Wooster gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey to hordes of readers who couldn’t wait to turn the page to find out whodunit. Lifeline Theatre is in the business of turning literary classics corporeal, and ensemble member Frances Limoncelli’s adaptation shows off her awarded flair. This re-mounting of Lifeline’s 2002 production is delicious in design and spirit.
A man, quite naked save for a pince-nez, is found in someone else’s bath. A prominent member of society is missing. The body in the bath isn’t society’s scion. Who is in the bath? Where is the Sir? The training hospital near the borrowed bath’s morgue’s tenants are all accounted for. Amateur detective Lord Peter to the rescue!
Director Jess Hutchinson’s ensemble of seven essay eighteen characters careening toward the denouement with a high level of success. John Drea, Joshua K. Harris, and Michaela Volt switch hats and accents in a flash of the eye, keeping the ever-quickening energy of the plot on its trajectory. Tony Bozzuto’s Dr. Freke is as Professor Moriarty as you could wish. Scott Danielson’s man’s man Bunter channels Jeeves delightfully. Katie McLean Hainsworth’s Duchess is all fragile-appearing, steel-backboned British aristocracy. Hainsworth sets the standard. As always, her work is not to be missed.
William Anthony Sebastian Rose II carries the show on his shoulders. His Lord Wimsey will surely grow in confidence as he settles in. Limoncelli’s first act suffers from an extra ten minutes or so about two-thirds through. Act two is a complete joy.
The star of the evening is Alan Donahue’s set. Economy itself, it changes a board here or there and transforms into different locales with aplomb, as easily as switching a body.
September 16, 2019
By Karen Topham
In Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1923 novel Whose Body?, the author introduced the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, a highly intelligent aristocrat suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome upon his return from a stint in WWI that included briefly being buried alive, who decides to devote his time and attention to solving mysteries. With the help of his good friends, valet Bunter and police inspector Charles Parker, Wimsey (known as Lord Peter) inserts himself into the investigations of complex and confounding crimes in a popular series of eleven novels and several short stories.
As adapted by company member Frances Limoncelli, Lifeline Theatre’s production of Whose Body? does a fine job presenting the character of the Oxford-educated Lord Peter and the hyper-loyal Bunter (among other characters), and the novel’s central mystery (which is not the question asked in the title). If the mystery, which is well performed by a fine cast and lovingly directed by Jess Hutchinson, ultimately is too easily predictable, the fault probably lies with Sayers, who was working in this genre for the first time.
The plot involves the appearance of a body in the bathtub of Lord Peter’s neighbor Mr. Thipps (John Drea), naked save for a pince-nez, at pretty much the same time as another man nearby vanishes without a trace, with Drea’s Parker leading the investigation. Unfortunately for Thipps, a brutish detective named Sugg (Joshua K. Harris) has already made up his mind, contrary to evidence and logic, that he both killed the man and situated him in the bath, perhaps with the help of a housekeeper played by Michaela Voit. (Sugg’s unprovoked, tunnel-visioned focus on Thipps is very difficult to comprehend.) Sugg, whose antipathy for Lord Peter is obvious, also has decided (again with no evidence) that the man in the bathtub is, in fact, the missing Jewish financier. This guy should be drummed out of the police department for gross incompetence, though he does manage to find one witness who sort of corroborates his thought process, a doctor at a local teaching hospital named Freke (pronounced “Frake” and played by Tony Bozutto).
William Anthony Sebastian Rose II takes on the role of Lord Peter and is marvelous as the sleuth, who is at base something of a caricature of an amateur detective: a young man with nothing but leisure time and tons of money whose idea of a good time is solving crimes. Rose plays him with a warmth and affection that renders him instantly likable even if we are never quite sure exactly why he needs to play this dangerous game. Rose is especially good in his scenes with Scott Danielson’s Bunter: their interesting and complicated relationship making for several memorable moments both comical and poignant. Danielson, who also plays a minor character (as all of the actors save Rose do), shows Bunter to be a protective, grounded presence in the unusual world of Lord Peter. Also caring deeply for Lord Peter is his mother (Kate McLean Hainsworth), who worries that the stress of her son’s involvement in this case might trigger a relapse of his PTSD.
Flashes of that PTSD are handled well by set designer Alan Donahue, lighting designer Diane D. Fairchild, and sound designer Stephanie M. Senior, who also contributes some whimsical—if you’ll pardon the pun—effects in the early narrative. Donahue’s clever multi-level set is able to move us easily among several locations, which negates the need for any long set changes, allowing Hutchinson (who helped her cast of seven to create eighteen separate characters) to keep things flowing throughout the play’s two and a half hours.
If you are a Sayers fan, you are likely to find Whose Body? highly pleasing. The performers embody every character, even the broad caricatures like Sugg, with great attention to making them as real as possible. (One of my favorite tiny moments involves a character simply called “Slavic Lady” who is engagingly portrayed by Voit.) If you can take or leave this genre, Whose Body? is not likely to convert you into a fan. Though it is certainly fun to watch actors of this caliber having such a great time, I prefer more nuanced and surprising mysteries rather than one whose answer I knew before intermission.
From The Chicago Tribune
More than one mystery is afoot in Lifeline Theatre’s ‘Whose Body?’
September 18, 2019
By Jerald Pierce
If it’s the 1920s and there’s a random dead body in your bathtub wearing nothing but a fancy pair of eyeglasses, you already know who should be your first call. Well, obviously the police. But right after that, especially if you live in the world of Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1923 mystery novel “Whose Body?,” you should probably call Lord Peter Wimsey.
Wimsey is a definitely-not-Sherlock Holmes amateur detective, played incredibly by William Anthony Sebastian Rose II at Lifeline Theatre — long the home for Sayers adaptations in Chicago. Adapted by Lifeline ensemble member Frances Limoncelli, the play follows Wimsey as he simultaneously investigates two unusual cases. The first involving a missing aristocrat and the second, a deceased John Doe in a bathtub that has everyone wondering whose dead body this is.
With snappy dialogue embellished with British dialects and humor, the story is rife with stock characters from British comedies. There’s a bumbling police officer, a perhaps too clever for his position butler and, of course, the amateur detective who, in Rose’s portrayal, is an enjoyable cross between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character and Tim Curry’s smirking, “I’m more brilliant than I’m letting on” performance in the 1985 classic “Clue.”
While there really isn’t too much depth to any of the characters beyond simple stereotypes, it’s hard to find fault since this production and story is all about the mystery. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin anything here.)
Jess Hutchinson’s direction adds to the script’s wit with a steady influx of physical bits. One particular favorite of mine is when Wimsey and his friend and crime-solving partner, Inspector Parker (John Drea), simply stand, staring at an unkempt bed. One beat, two beats, three beats, a head tilt. The timing is fantastic and Wimsey’s exasperation punctuates the moment perfectly.
Unfortunately, whenever the jokes fall away and important background information that should help solve the cases comes out, the production bogs down. This is especially true when the story takes an odd turn into examining Wimsey’s post-World War I trauma. His post-traumatic stress leads to bouts of panic when he gets too worked up about the two troubling cases on which he’s working.
The design of these moments is clever. Set designer Alan Donahue, lighting designer Diane D. Fairchild and sound designer Stefanie M. Senior combine to create some truly striking moments. Donahue’s three-level set has a backdrop of what looks like a large wall of bookshelves filled with, presumably, Wimsey’s impressive library. However, as Wimsey’s horrible memories of the war start to break through into his current highbrow life, light shines through portions of the backdrop. Images from Wimsey’s war past appear through the now clear scrim of the bookshelf. Senior caps the effect with ringing tones that echo the after-effects of a bomb going off.
These moments from the design team are poignant. Rose’s performance, going from completely in control and more clever than anyone else on stage to completely crushed and terrified is stark. The script, on the other hand, treats this aspect of the story as an afterthought. It’s not justified enough to earn it’s place in the story, but it’s also too prevalent to ignore.
With a story already as dense and lengthy as “Whose Body?,” it’s easy to start looking for what didn’t belong. At its heart, this play is a silly, clever murder mystery that you may or may not be able to figure out before the ending is revealed. (Let’s be honest, you probably will figure it out.) Still, in those few moments where you’re asked to listen carefully and parse through dialogue for clues that are slow to surface in this John Doe mystery, you may find yourself asking — begging even — for someone to hurry up and just tell you whose body.
From Picture this Post
Lifeline Theatre Presents WHOSE BODY? Review – Dry Wit and Old Scars
September 18, 2019
By Harold Jaffe
It’s been ten years since Frances Limoncelli adapted Busman’s Honeymoon for the stage, but now Lifeline returns to Dorothy L. Sayers with Limoncelli’s 2002 adaptation of Sayers’ first novel, Whose Body?
When we first meet Lord Peter Wimsey, racing back to his posh living quarters to retrieve the auction catalog for a rare book sale, dressed to the nines in top hat and coat, he appears to be nothing more than a dandy, free from responsibility or care. This impression is only reinforced when his valet Mr. Bunter informs him that his mother the Duchess (Katie McLean Hainsworth) is on the telephone and he tries to wriggle out of answering. Only when she mentions the inexplicable appearance of a dead body wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez in an acquaintance’s bathtub does a flash of curiosity, determination, and intrigue flash across his face, and we see that there is more to him than meets the eye.
Clad in Caitlin McLeod and Anna Wooden’s sumptuous costumes and speaking in a variety of British accents (or in the case of Joshua K. Harris’s J.P. Milligan, a Ditka-esque Chicago dialect) coached by Carrie Hardin, director Jess Hutchinson and her capable cast take us back to London, 1923. Mystery piles on mystery: upon consulting his friend Inspector Parker (John Drea) about the body in the bath, Wimsey learns that famous businessman Sir Reuben Levy (another acquaintance of his mother’s) has simultaneously gone missing.
As Wimsey, Bunter, and Parker investigate further, they encounter a wide range of colorful characters–and suspects. Who is the man in the tub? Did Sir Reuben abscond of his own accord, or was he abducted? Are the one fellow’s murder and the other’s disappearance connected? Each new clue and interview brings the cases into clearer focus, but Wimsey’s bursts of insight are counterbalanced by flashes of PTSD from his service in the Great War, represented by literal flashes of projections in the background. He may be a cheeky devil most of the time, but he is also haunted by his experiences.
In this writer’s view, Limoncelli’s adaptation and Hutchinson’s direction pull off an impressive balance of levity and gravity. Though occasionally the actors converse with such passion and speed, and in such thick accents, that they become nearly incomprehensible to American ears, their performances are never less than splendid and bring the audience right into the action. All of this plays out on Alan Donahue’s puzzle box of a stage, three well-appointed rooms at three separate levels, each of which doubles as at least two locations, with multiple staircases, hidden compartments, and more. This critic expects theater and mystery fans of all stripes will find Lifeline Theatre’s Whose Body? a jolly good time.
From Chicago Theatre Review
Murder Most Foul
September 18, 2019
By Colin Douglas
Lord Peter Wimsey, featured in eleven detective novels and two sets of short stories, made his literary debut in Dorothy L. Sayers’ best-selling mystery, Whose Body? The British author introduced her amateur sleuth to the world in 1923, shortly after the end of WWI. Lord Peter is an unmarried aristocrat who, upon returning from his military service in the Great War, decides to occupy his abundant leisure time helping to solve crimes. Peter views his new pastime as a game. He fancies himself to be a more modern version of Sherlock Holmes. Together with his friend, Inspector Charles Parker, standing in as his Dr. Watson, the two gentlemen set about to clear the name of a sweet-tempered Englishman accused of murder most foul.
In Sayers’ story, Mr. Thipps is a mild-mannered architect who discovers a naked, dead body in his bathtub. Strangely, the only item the deceased wears is a pair of pince-nez. When Thipps is arrested by the boorish Inspector Sugg for the death of the mysterious, unclothed man in his lavatory, Lord Peter and Inspector Parker set about to prove his innocence. Coincidentally, Suggs had been working on another case involving the sudden recent disappearance of renowned financier, Sir Reuben Levy. The Inspector has observed some superficial similarities between Levy and the dead man in Thipps’ bathtub, and so he simply concludes that he’s solved both cases at the same time.
Because Mr. Thipps’ apartment is near a teaching hospital, where donated cadavers are dissected for medical research, Lord Peter and Charles suspect that the body in the bathtub might’ve simply been a student’s practical joke. However, when respected English doctor, Julian Freke, testifies at the inquest that none of the bodies had been missing from the hospital, the theory is thrown out the window. Wimsey and Parker, aided by Lord Peter’s faithful manservant, Bunter, set about to collect the necessary evidence that’ll disprove Inspector Suggs’ accusation and expose the true murderer.
Longtime Lifeline ensemble member, Frances Limoncelli has adapted this Dorothy L. Sayers’ murder mystery for the theatre. She’s already transferred several of the author’s other novels for the stage, including her Jeff Awarded adaptations of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” “Gaudy Night” and “Strong Poison.” It was only natural that Ms. Limoncelli would bring Lord Peter Wimsey to the Lifeline stage once more. She’s entrusted her script to Jess Hutchinson, the talented director of last season’s excellent adaptation of “The Man Who Was Thursday.” Based upon this pair of productions, Ms. Hutchinson seems to possess a particular knack for guiding exciting performances of English whodunits.
Hutchinson’s hardworking seven-member cast is incredibly talented, particularly the actors who portray more than one character. Making his Lifeline debut, Loyola University student John Drea is quite simply magnificent. His unique portrayals of both the dignified Inspector Parker and the agitated accused architect, Mr. Thipps, are so fully-defined and completely different, that it wasn’t until near the end of Act I that this reviewer figured out that Mr. Drea was playing both roles. Along with his costume, his physicality and accomplished accent, Drea’s entire demeanor completely changes for each character. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of this gifted, likable young actor in many future productions.
Joshua K. Harris, another newcomer to this respected Rogers Park venue, is one more chameleon actor. A familiar face at The Right Brain Project, Akvavit and Metropolis Theatres, Mr. Harris is appropriately churlish and crude as Inspector Sugg. He also seems to relish playing the humorously ugly American millionaire, J.P. Milligan, as well as the Coroner and a working class man named Piggott. He’s another actor to watch.
One more new kid on the block at Lifeline is Scott Danielson, seen here in the dual role of Bunter and Dr. Grimbold. Mr. Danielson’s impressive resume includes, among other shows, star-making appearances in “Bright Star,” with BoHo Theatre, “Nine to Five,” with Firebrand, and “The Full Monty,” with Kokandy Productions. At Lifeline he plays Lord Peter’s manservant and faithful friend, Mervyn Bunter, and does so with a perfect blend of compassion and command. Danielson nicely switches hats by playing the scholarly Dr. Grimbold.
Tony Bozzuto returns to Lifeline as the debonair Dr. Julian Freke. As this respected doctor, author and professor of medicine, Mr. Bozzuto is perfect. He plays a suave character who’s in perfect control of the world around him. His Dr. Freke sports a confident air and an upper class dialect that invokes the character’s superiority and a certain aura of mystery. In contrast, Bozzuto also skillfully plays a less-respected man’s man named Cummings, as well as another working class fellow named Bill Williams.
Although the story only features a handful of female characters, talented Lifeline ensemble member Katie McLean Hainsworth breathes life and a great deal of dry humor into the cameo role of the Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter Wimsey’s opinionated mother. She also briefly appears as Mrs. Thipps. Making her debut at Lifeline, Michaela Voit makes an impression, demonstrating her versatility by playing four very different roles. She’s delightful (although sometimes difficult to understand) as Gladys Horricks, the Thipps’ befuddled chambermaid. Then she turns the tables by portraying a fawning, aristocratic Lady Swaffam. When Ms. Voit returns to the story she is playing a Slavic woman waiting to see Dr. Freke; and later the actress steps into the role of a distraught Lady Levy, the wife of the missing Jewish financier.
That leaves us with William Anthony Sebastian Rose II, who plays Lord Peter Wimsey. This talented actor has been working all over Chicagoland. He was last seen at Lifeline Theatre in their excellent production of “The Man Who Was Thursday.” In this production, Mr. Rose is the main character, the audience’s guide and he holds the story in the palm of his hand. The character of Lord Peter, especially as paired with his manservant, Bunter, has been compared with Jeeves and Wooster, by PG Wodehouse. Mr. Rose starts off his performance as a bundle of energy, impishly conveying Wimsey’s rapture and relish at being involved in the detection of another crime. But unfortunately Rose’s enthusiasm, combined with an accent that often overtakes his words, makes the actor impossible to understand. His quieter scene in Act II at his mother’s estate proved that the actor could, in fact, control his vivacity. Perhaps after the opening night performance, Mr. Rose will settle into his role, slow down a bit and allow his audience to join him in Lord Peter’s fervor to solve the crime.
In addition to telling a thrilling, sometimes grisly story, played beautifully by a terrific cast, there’s a great deal of backstage artistry that makes this melodrama so fine. As mentioned, Jess Hutchinson’s direction is spot-on. Scenic designer Alan Donahue has designed a gorgeous set, filled with Edwardian English detail, that provides a great deal of versatility in the intimate Lifeline space. The shadowy story is nicely lit by Diane D. Fairchild. Co-costumers Caitlin McLeod and Anna Wooden have clothed their characters with perfect period style. And Stephanie M. Senior has created an superb sound design that adds much to the mood and suspense of this British thriller.
From Around the Town Chicago
September 19, 2019
By Julia W. Rath
***In the days before talkies, color movies, radio, television, and video, it was theatre that brought whodunits to admiring audiences. Lifeline Theatre has continued this tradition by staging its elegant production of “Whose Body?”, based on Dorothy Sayers’ 1923 classic thriller. Its skillful adaption for the Lifeline stage by Frances Limoncelli will most certainly pique the interest of a new generation of spectators, some of whom might be drawn to pick up the original novel.
The first thing the audience notices on walking into the auditorium is the Harry Potter-like ambiance of the set with its multi-level layers of stages, complete with ascending wooden staircase. Half the audience probably used the Potter reference to describe their feelings of mystical enchantment. This is also how the modern generation of Americans might perceive of a bygone era of English nobility and privilege, where vast numbers of books and antique furnishings marked a wealthy family’s high status and influence.
Later as the play progresses, we can observe just how the highly inventive mechanical components function on stage in tandem with the storyline. This, plus the amble props (and the characters’ easy use of them), is the craft of Alan Donahue, the scenic and props wizard. How nicely he transports us back to old-tyme England between World Wars One and Two!
The overriding question at hand is whether this whodunit is successful: whether it effectively engages the audience, does its job of keeping each of us guessing who the murderer might be, and satisfies each one of us once we know the resolution of the crime.
Let’s put aside this issue for the moment. Allow me first to heap immense praise on the production itself, starting with the phenomenally creative director Jess Hutchinson, who has the actors emote from different parts of the house. Without moving from our seats, the audience becomes a part of the show.
Then there’s the superb acting and casting. William Anthony sparkles in his role as Lord Peter Wimsey. The smooth performance of this African-American actor playing an English nobleman is highly laudable and believable. The fact that he can draw in all of the action throughout the entire show is nothing short of spectacular. Circles drawn around him include that of his butler (an incredibly faithful representation by Scott Danielson), his mother (Katie McLean Hainsworth), Inspector Parker from Scotland Yard (John Drea) and his counterpart Inspector Sugg (Joshua K. Harris), and an array of other characters including the neurologist Dr. Julian Freke and his assistant Cummings (both adroitly played by Tony Bozzuto) and the maid (Michaela Voit). All of these supporting actors go through several costume changes in the process of playing multiple roles convincingly with the illusion of simultaneousness.
The small flaw in the acting has to do with the (intentional) overreach of Harris as the Chicagoan J.P. Milligan. His character is far too reminiscent of the Saturday Night Live sketch from the early 1990s about “Da Bears.” It is so over-the-top that it isn’t funny, even as comic relief. After all, the play ought to retain its genre as a murder mystery.
Credit must also go to the co-costume designers Caitlan McLeaod and Anna Wooden, whose outfits are all beautiful and rich, using authentic patterns and finely crafted materials. The depiction of this era would have been far less realistic without their meticulous attention to detail.
Now let me rephrase the question that I posed earlier in this review: Does the show work?
The performance is pleasantly whimsical, as represented in the character of Lord Wimsey, a Renaissance man, who fancies himself a private investigator. The nobleman often reflects on the deadly seriousness of his pursuit, for if he were to make a mistake in identifying the wrong person as the murderer, he would have done everybody a disservice (a classic British understatement). He constantly has flashbacks to the time when he was a major in the (First) World War and suffers from bouts of—what we call today—PTSD, back then known as shellshock. These episodes cause him pain but also provide him with flashes of insight, including his suspicion as to whom the murderer might be.
By understanding the post-World War (One) historical context, we can better appreciate the whole story, but that doesn’t make us love it. Something essential is missing. To my taste, there is not enough mystery and intrigue. The script is much too predictable (and thus unsatisfying), especially in the second act.
Speaking of taste, allow me to digress. Creating outstanding theatre is like making the perfect soup. The quality, amount, proportion, and freshness of ingredients are all important to the recipe. The preparation has to be just right in order for the flavors to come together. Underlying it all is the most fundamental element: the soup base. So it is with theatre. In “Whose Body?” we see all the gloss and gilt on stage; we witness all the savory elements; but the show needs to be grounded in a meatier broth before moving on to the seasoning. (My apologies to the vegetarians among us.)
Above all, despite the painstaking attention to detail—from the compelling acting to the creative set design to the fine costuming, sound design and lighting—the script needs more freshness. The story, while appropriate to the 1920s, is dated: Today’s audiences demand a grittier, more action-oriented plot, with just enough horror to make it all feel real. There are times when I should have been on the edge of my seat, but I was not and felt deflated. In brief, the play fails to meet expectations, because it’s much too cerebral and old-fashioned. There are much better detective stories out there than this one, and many can be found on television.
“Whose Body?” is thus successful as a historical piece but not as a whodunit. It is a tasty morsel of this time period but not enough of a mystery to be devoured.
Reminiscent of the underground/subway which has rattled many a vintage London theatre, one can hear the whirring elevated train (“L”) atop Glenwood Avenue at stage left. A hundred years ago when Dorothy Sayers wrote her books, it was no different: Chicagoans and Londoners would have similarly heard the muffled sound of reverberating railcars from their comfortable seats. But any superficial resemblance between the two audiences is just that. The story that worked well in Britain between the wars falls flat today. Though highly polished, Lifeline’s performance of this London-based thriller is much too rooted in a singular time and place—and lacks the quidditch to launch it into the 21st century.
From The Northwest Harold
September 19, 2019
By Paul Lockwood
England. 1923. A dead man has been found in a bathtub wearing nothing but pince-nez spectacles. Whose body is it, how did the body get there, and is there any connection to a missing financier? The game is clearly afoot with two mysteries for Lord Peter Wimsey, the gentleman sleuth featured in over a dozen novels by Dorothy L. Sayers, including the first, “Whose Body?” published 96 years ago.
Lifeline Theatre’s new production of Whose Body?, as adapted by Lifeline Artistic Ensemble member Frances Limoncelli, has something for everyone: a murder mystery with an unknown victim; an intelligent, playful, and occasionally shell-shocked sleuth whose duchess mother, valet/manservant, and Scotland Yard detective friend are his biggest fans and informants; a storyline that intermingles humor and drama along with the whodunit aspects; a beautifully built three-level set in which scenes can quickly transition from a study to a courtroom, restaurant, business office, bedroom, study, bathroom, patio, doctor’s office, sidewalk, and more. (That intricate set by scenic designer Alan Donahue is Jeff Award-worthy.)
Director Jess Hutchinson has a wealth of acting talent on stage, with seven actors tackling 18 roles.
In the role of Lord Peter, William Anthony Sebastian Rose II has the chance to show all the facets of a complicated character who has: the intellect and observation skills of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, the upper-crust style and wit of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick Charles, and, tragically, the post-war trauma experienced by real-life veterans.
John Drea – in the dual role of a nervous suspect and Inspector Parker – creates two distinct memorable characters, as does Scott Danielson as Bunter (Lord Peter’s valet and trusted friend) and a doctor at the coroner’s inquest.
I was especially impressed by Joshua K. Harris, whose appearance, accents, dialogue delivery, and body language were all unique for his characters: a cop who resents Lord Peter’s interference, an American railway owner, an all-business coroner, and a medical student whose fondness for liquor may help him remember key information during the investigation.
Tony Bozzuto, Katie McLean Hainsworth, and Michaela Voit also bring multiple characters to life, including a sophisticated physician, Lord Peter’s mother, and a very emotional maid in the home where the bathtub victim was discovered.
The twists and turns of the plot are worth finding out on your own, either through this production or through the original novel if you can’t get to Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood before the last performance Oct. 27.
If you do plan to see Whose Body?, be advised that steps to seating rows are a bit steep. There is a railing, but at the Sunday afternoon performance I attended, one audience member who admitted to balance issues had a fall on the first step or two. (She’s okay; the house manager and others helped her, and she was able to see the entire play.) Also, due to the fast pace and strong accent used by Rose early on, and a too-quiet Act II scene with Voit and Rose, my wife and I had difficulty grasping some of the dialogue.
On the whole, though, while it’s a bit of a drive from McHenry County, this adaptation is well worth seeing. Whose Body? will entertain, intrigue, and amuse most any body.
P.S. While the steps were challenging, when it comes to accessibility, Lifeline goes the extra mile. Folding chairs can apparently be added in front of the first elevated row. For those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, performances on Sun., Sept. 29 and Friday, Oct. 25 feature open captioning. Similarly, a Sat., Sept. 28 matinee, including a pre-show touch tour, is ideal for those who are blind or have low vision.
From Chicago Reader
September 18, 2019
By Dan Jakes
Lifeline Theatre’s stage has been something of a home away from home for dapper hobbyist detective Lord Peter Wimsey over the past few decades. The mystery-unraveling sleuth protagonist of many of English author Dorothy L. Sayers’s crime novels has appeared in four different adaptations by Frances Limoncelli at the company, including this 2002 script dramatizing Sayers’s debut full-length work of fiction.
On the same day a high-profile financier disappears, a freshly barbered corpse is discovered in a bathtub propped up and styled to resemble the missing man. Drawn to the oddity of the case, Wimsey (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II) teams up with his inspector confidante (John Drea) and manservant (Scott Danielson) to chase down clues that reveal a tangled scheme of business and medical malfeasance. Jess Hutchinson’s cast leans into the buddy-comedy quippiness and droll soliloquies inspired by Sayers’s style of storytelling, and there’s plenty of fun to be had with this charming cast of actors throwing around outsize English dialects and broad character choices.
But even with a closely kept ear, the puzzle that drives the story evolves pretty quickly from intricate to inscrutable. Unlike in a novel, where world-building details have some room to breathe, the story here becomes strained underneath a torrent of proper nouns and red herrings, as well as arcane character backstories that are made only more confusing by double- and triple-casting. Clocking in at close to two and a half hours, Hutchinson’s production builds a strong case for reading Sayers’s books—the mystery of whether or not their stories fit onstage, though, remains unsolved.
From BroadwayWorld Chicago
September 22, 2019
By Emily McClanathan
The first hints of autumn weather have barely touched Chicago, but with its season opener, Lifeline Theatre turns to that coziest of genres: the classic British murder mystery. Jess Hutchinson directs a revival of WHOSE BODY?, adapted by Frances Limoncelli from the 1923 novel by Dorothy Sayers. Though the English author and scholar is not exactly a household name for modern American audiences, Sayers counted C.S. Lewis among her friends and was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University. WHOSE BODY? marks the debut of her best-known character, Lord Peter Wimsey, a quirky aristocrat with impeccable taste in antique books, classical music, and fine wine–as well as a penchant for amateur sleuthing.
When a middle-class architect discovers a dead body in his bath, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez spectacles, Wimsey is called in to consult. This curious case soon becomes a double mystery when a prominent member of London society goes missing, and the official Scotland Yard detectives are determined to connect the two incidents. Wimsey must follow a trail of clues that bring him into contact with a host of entertaining stock characters: the flustered maid, the uncouth American railroad tycoon, the bull-headed policeman, the simpering socialite, and more. Alan Donahue’s set cleverly accommodates a variety of locations by hiding cubbies in Wimsey’s wood-paneled, book-lined drawing room; these open to reveal set pieces that indicate a bedroom, an office, a courtroom, and an open grave.
William Anthony Sebastian Rose II portrays Lord Peter Wimsey with charm and humor, clearly having mined the source material to recreate this character for the stage. For anyone who has read the books, Sayers’ detailed descriptions of Wimsey’s mannerisms practically leap off the page, and Rose nails his drawling speech, drooping eyelids, eloquent eyebrows, and graceful gestures. Caitlin McLeod and Anna Wooden’s elegantly tailored costumes ensure that he looks every inch the aristocrat. Though some lines are lost through Rose’s stylized delivery, overall it’s a well-crafted performance. Wimsey’s friendly banter with his faithful butler, Bunter (Scott Danielson), is reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster–though in this case, butler and gentleman are more equally matched in the IQ department.
A fine supporting cast join Rose, each playing multiple roles. Katie McLean Hainsworth shares a natural rapport with Rose as Wimsey’s mother, the Duchess of Denver, from whom her son inherits his mischievous sense of humor and zest for adventure. John Drea, a senior at Loyola University, displays versatility doubling as Inspector Parker, the intelligent, hard-working police detective, and Mr. Thipps, the harried, absent-minded architect who discovers the body in his bath. Joshua K. Harris, Michaela Voit, and Tony Bozzuto give comedic turns in a variety of roles, while Bozzuto also plays Dr. Julian Freke, the smooth-talking psychiatrist who espouses some troubling views about the criminal mind. Though many of the minor roles veer into caricature, this tendency can be forgiven as a staple of the genre–especially in the hands of this entertaining cast.
On a more serious note, the play introduces a recurring theme from the Wimsey novels: the detective’s struggles with PTSD, or ‘shell-shock,’ as a WWI veteran. A former army officer, Wimsey suffers from nightmares, hallucinations, and paralyzing guilt about the men who died under his command. In this adaptation, his shell-shock returns when he solves the case but cannot stomach the idea of sending another man, even a murderer, to his death. Hutchinson’s staging hints at this plot thread early on, with eerie flashes of light that silhouette images of barbed wire, trenches, and dead soldiers through the set’s back wall. These glimpses are brief enough to confuse audience members without previous knowledge of the Wimsey canon, though Act I culminates in a fevered dream sequence that more clearly sets up Wimsey’s troubled conscience in Act II. Once the idea is fleshed out, it forms a sobering snapshot of the period between the two world wars, when the psychological effects of combat were first widely recognized.
WHOSE BODY? may not boast the most intricate of whodunit plots, but this atmospheric period piece offers plenty of entertainment. Wimsey fans will appreciate a faithful adaptation of Sayers’ beloved detective. However, previous familiarity is by no means required; this strongly acted, creatively designed murder mystery is well worth a visit from anyone who enjoys the genre.
From The Fourth Walsh
Heart, Humor and Murder!
September 24, 2019
By Katy Walsh
When a dead body is found in a bathtub, the duchess (played by Katie McLean Hainsworth) relays the scandal to her son and amateur sleuth Lord Peter (played by William Anthony Sebastian Rose II). A mysterious murder entices Peter to skip the book sale and head to the crime scene. Author Dorothy L. Sayers penned a 1920s detective series around an aristocrat’s keen criminological mind. Playwright Frances Limoncelli takes Sayers beloved story and adapts it for stage in this witty whodunit.
Under Jess Hutchison’s skillful direction, the terrific ensemble tether us to this charming British tale. Playing multiple characters, the actors effortlessly change personas with a new costume and accent (nod out to both Costume Designers Caitlin McLeod and Anna Wooden, as well as, Voice & Dialect Coach Carrie Hardin). The colorful wardrobes and dialects give the story more entertainment posh. And Scenic Designer Alan Donahue’s grand library is the multi-functional centerpiece. Through hidden doors, we are cleverly transported to an office and later a graveyard.
In the lead, a grandiose Rose investigates the murder like its a cerebral sport. He spiritedly spars with his trusty butler (played by Scott Danielson) and inspector friend (played by John Drea) to unravel the mystery. Rose plays it so deliciously pompous that when he is stricken by the past, his fragility is endearing.
Although the mystery is the central intellectual curiosity, the story is so much more than murder. It has heart and humor! Rose’s relationship with a haughty yet doting McLean Hainsworth is adorable. McLean Hainsworth zings the one liners with panache. Their delighted presence at an inquest is hilariously wrong. Rose and Danielson also have this Batman-Alfred thing going on. Danielson is hysterical as he unemotionally explains why he has been drinking the expensive brandy. So fun!
WHOSE BODY? You should find out for yourself. Get a ticket to this winsome whodunit!