It’s a long-standing tradition for Thomas More College to put on a play during the semester. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace are only some of the productions from recent years. Last spring, the students of Thomas More produced Cupid and Death, a comedic masque adapted from Renaissance sources. The amount of artistic consideration and talent that went into Cupid and Death was demonstrated again this past weekend with the premier of Between Falls the Shadow, an original work written and directed by current senior Jonathan Wanner.
What sort of play is Between Falls the Shadow? It has humor, certainly. At points the audience threatened to roll off their chairs with laughter. At its outset, it seems to be a variation on that classic genre, the murder mystery. The opening scene finds elegant—but deceptive—ladies, dapper gentlemen sipping brandy, and smart-speaking detectives trying to figure it all out. All the conventional elements of a murder mystery are there too: eerie organ music, thunderstorms, secret tunnels, and a certain amount of melodrama. Well, a lot of melodrama. But that’s only the first level to the play. It is about murder, and it is about mystery, but in a way entirely unexpected.
The audience is given a hint as to what the real drama is that they’ve come to see when a movie director bursts onto the murder scene. It’s a play-within-a-play, a murder mystery within a murder mystery, right? Murder Amoung Us, is what we have been audience to so far. Very clever…but as the play proceeds, even that device conceals its real theme. Again, it is about murder, and it is about mystery. As Fanny, one of the play’s characters observes, murder mysteries are ultimately about two things: love, and death.
Admittedly, Between Falls the Shadows has a modern form unusual for Thomas More productions. But that by no means lessened its effect on the audience. If anything, it made its resolution all the more complete, and all the more unsatisfying. Fanny, writer, former actress, and mastermind of the movie within the play asserts at one point “Earlier you asked me what I think about art’s purpose, so I’ll tell you. It’s shocking- but art must be shocking nowadays- to make the audience do what they don’t want to”. Joan, the snobby art critic responds “And what is it they don’t want to do?” “I’d tell you directly, but then you’d never learn” responds Fanny, cigarette and scotch in hand. This discourse, seemingly an enigma at the time, slowly dawns upon the audience at the plays end. This play does not tell us outright. This play does not satisfy directly. This play makes the audience do what it does not want to do.
Without giving away the real drama of Between Falls the Shadow—which would detract from its power by oversimplification—it is enough to note the audience’s reactions to its apparently abrupt ending. There was applause, certainly, a great deal of it. Even the final detail was calculated as part of the performance. All the cast silently took their bows together, sober faces, acknowledging the weighty thoughts the play left all with. But after the applause? Some people got up to leave and thank the cast. Some remained in their seats, and those who did were silent. Like the Greek tragedies, which were meant to move the audience to “pity and terror,” the fall semester’s play entirely succeeded at achieving its goal: more than spectacle, more than pleasure. It moved the audience to contemplate what had just passed before them.
Perhaps the last words left with the audience best sum it up: words that the audience heard in the first act, and words that are finally beginning to sink in. The lights have gone out, the audience sits in silence trying to regain their reeling world and a classic 1940s detective-like voice crackles over the speaker system…
“And so it goes: the victim is the murderer, love is betrayed, and all are left with an awkward silence to wonder why- why there is evil in the world, why, so often it comes in the form of a beautiful dame, and why man is blind because he sees things from the outside in and not the inside out. Only one thing is for sure: society gets the tragedy it demands. This is officer Friday, signing out.”