The Play’s The Thing- The Mousetrap

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

Why I Decided To Read It: For Christmas a couple years ago, I got a book of plays by Agatha Christie.  I like mysteries and I’ve read a bit of other Agatha Christie things by this point.  Recently, I wanted to read something a bit more classic, so I looked on my shelf and saw the Agatha Christie play collection, so I decided to read The Mousetrap.  I knew that it’s her most famous play and it’s still performed on the West End to this day.  Also, I thought review this with Hamlet references in both titles was kind of funny.

Summary:  Young couple Mollie and Giles Ralston are a bit in over their heads when they decide to open a guest house in the English countryside.  On the first day Monkswell Manor is open for guests, a snow storm traps them and their guests- excitable Christopher Wren, opinionated Mrs. Boyle, kind Major Metcalf, aloof Miss Casewell, and plain odd Mr. Paravicini- for the foreseeable future.  When a detective sergeant comes to investigate the murder of a woman found with a notebook containing references to “Three Blind Mice” and the address of Monkswell Manor, everyone goes on alert.  Everyone is a suspect.  And anyone can be a victim.

Thoughts and Analysis: I’m not going to spoil the ending on this one- unlike some of my other reviews- out of respect for Agatha Christie and her estate’s wishes.  It’s very Agatha Christie though.  She loves her twists.

I really wasn’t sure where this one was going to go.  There were a couple times where I had to stop myself and not look at the ending because I am impatient and like to know the ending of mysteries.  It kept me on my toes.

I know “parlor mysteries” have been satired to the moon and back, but The Mousetrap is a great parlor mystery regardless.  There is a reason Agatha Christie is The Queen of Crime.  The characters are interesting.  It’s plotted well.  The atmosphere is downright creepy at times with the use of “Three Blind Mice” but there is some levity.  The suspense is pretty good.

It’s not the deepest play in terms of theme as a whole or message- most traditional murder mysteries aren’t.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing.  And there are plenty of opportunities for productions/actors to look into the background of each individual character and use it for their advantages.  It is what it is and that’s a pretty damn good classic murder mystery.

Favorite Character: All the characters are very character-y.  Again, not a bad thing.  I do like Miss Casewell because she’s the most mysterious of all the guests.  She’s also pretty sarcastic.  It’s also rare to see a young, non-feminine woman who isn’t really the butt of the joke in plays of this time.  Mollie Ralston is also a pretty good character, in the more traditional leading-lady sense.

Should You Read This?:  Considering this is the bedrock for a lot of murder mystery plays, it’s worth giving a whirl.

Final Thoughts: If you like murder mysteries, this is one of the best of the originators.


The Play’s The Thing- Blue Stockings

Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale

Blue Stockings

(image taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: Surprise, surprise.  Another historically placed, women-centered play written by a female playwright.  This is seventh out of nine play script reviews.  I am so predictable.  I think I found this one in “Related Products” when I bought another play by Jessica Swale, Nell Gwynn.  I decided to read it now because I enjoyed Nell Gwynn and wanted to read more by Jessica Swale.  This is her first play.

Summary:  In 1896 Britain, education is a privilege, not a right.  No one knows that better than the young women of Girton College in Cambridge.  Although they learn the same things as the men- taught by professors willing to risk their reputations educating young ladies- they get nothing in return.  No degrees.  Few job prospects.  Even fewer marriage prospects.  Nothing but being labeled a “blue stocking”- a nickname given to what are seen as overly educated girls.  However, Tess Moffat, Celia Willbond, Carolyn Addison, Maeve Sullivan, and their teachers are going to fight for the ladies’ right to get an education and a degree.  Will they succeed?

Thoughts and Analysis: I really liked this play.  I’m not sure how I would compare it to the other Jessica Swale play I read, Nell Gwynn.  Their topics are so different.  I will say it is not as stylized as Nell Gwynn, but that’s not fair to Blue Stockings because Nell Gwynn takes place in Restoration theater and has to be more stylized.

This play kind of runs parallel to Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky.  If anything, Blue Stockings is a sort of precursor to the other play.  While Silent Sky is about women fighting for their professional work to be recognized, Blue Stockings is about young women’s fight to get an education and a degree.  Also, they take place in two different countries.  While the the US and Britain weren’t that different during the turn of the 20th Century, there is arguably more class issues in Blue Stockings brought into the forefront because it is set in Britain.

One thing that I really appreciated in Blue Stockings is the camaraderie between Tess, Celia, Carolyn, and Maeve.  They wanted each other to succeed even if they didn’t always agree with one another.  The girls each had their own fleshed out characters- albeit some more than others- so they were all different.  Tess isn’t afraid to push boundaries.  Celia is a hard worker, almost to the point of putting her health at risk.  Carolyn is very bohemian.  Maeve has a chip on her shoulder.  They actually fit all the different Hogwarts houses.  Tess is a Gryffindor, Celia is a Hufflepuff, Carolyn is Ravenclaw, and Maeve is a Slytherin.  That’s how I interpreted it at least.

This play also says something interesting about concessions that women especially make in order to further certain causes in a way that is palatable to the status quo.  Mainly this shows up in the character of Mrs. Welsh, the Mistress of Girton College.  She wants women to have degrees so bad that she’s willing to forgo things that she wants or believes in to make it happen.  She supports women’s right to vote, but doesn’t want the college to be associated with suffragettes.  They are just too political.  And (spoiler alert) it doesn’t even work.  At times, I wanted to judge Mrs. Welsh for this, but I ultimately knew that was hypocritical.  I think most women have tried to downplay certain aspects of themselves to get ahead.  Only just at this moment in time are we starting to see the tipping point of more and more women being unapologetic in standing up for themselves and other women.

The scary thing about this play is that the patriarchy and misogyny is still such a huge problem.  There’s a scene when a lecturer shuts all the women out of a discussion of women and hysteria and after first ignoring her, uses Tess’s attempts at providing an argument against her and that scene just hit home.  Do you know how many times some dude- who doesn’t even know what their talking about- talked over me about a topic that I know?  It’s a lot.  I think most women have experienced something like that in work or at school.  And that’s not even the worst thing that happens in the play.

Favorite Character:  It’s so hard to say.  All the women are great.  And Mr. Banks the professor.  I’m going to give a slight lean to Carolyn because she’s so extra.

Should You Read This?:  I say give it a shot.  There aren’t many plays specifically looking at the history of women’s education and it’s a relevant topic in this day and age.

Final Thoughts: Sexism in academia is still such a problem.  Let’s all be more like the Girton Girls and support on another.

The Play’s The Thing- Queen Anne

Queen Anne by Helen Edmundson

Queen Anne

(Portrait of Queen Anne by Michael Dahl, 1705, Image taken from Wikipedia)

And I’m back!  I’m going to try to do more of this in 2019.

Why I Decided To Read It: I actually learned about Queen Anne (the person, not the play) in my Tudor/Stewart England class in college.  I thought she was fascinating, especially her relationship with Sarah Churchill.  I found this play in an Amazon rabbit hole a while ago and I thought “Awesome, I’m totally interested in this story!”.  I only committed to reading it (though I have been meaning to for a while) after seeing The Favourite.  I was excited to see the film for the same reason I was excited to read this play.  I didn’t care for The Favourite.  While the performances are fantastic, especially Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, there are many things I had difficulty with.  I know historical accuracy wasn’t the filmmakers’ main concern, but it’s unfortunate that most people don’t know about this time period.  So, I wanted to get another view of this story by reading this play.

Summary:  It’s the early 18th Century in England and there is troubling brewing. The Stuart reign is coming to an end. There is a fear that a Catholic upriser is planning in France. The last of the Stuart line, Princess Anne, is shy and easily led by advisors, especially friend Sarah Churchill. Sarah Churchill is vivacious, beautiful, and shrewdly political. Anne and Sarah have differing opinions on politics, but Sarah usually gets her way. When her brother-in-law unexpectedly dies, Anne becomes Queen or England sooner than expected. As decisions have to be made, Queen Anne has to decide to listen to her oldest friends or listen to her own instincts.

Thoughts and Analysis: I liked this play even more than the previous Helen Edmundson play I read, Mary Shelley.

This is what I wanted out of a Queen Anne story. Not only does it cover the relationships between the characters, but it also covers more of what Queen Anne’s reign was like and how it affected her relationships. She wasn’t entirely worthless. During her monarchy, Scotland joined England to become Great Britain.  This was a reign where there wasn’t a lot of difficulty between monarch and parliament (and if you consider most of the Stuart dynasty, that says a lot).  She had her own opinions on matters of state and she eventually grew into her powers as Queen.

This story is about power. It appears in a few different ways. Like any political story, everyone is playing a game for power. Queen Anne should have it, but people use her lack of confidence, her illnesses, and her gender against her. Sarah Churchill, her husband, and their allies constantly jockey for more influence. The fights between the Tories and the Whigs often get ugly. It’s hard not to see the ugliness in the politics of the play in use today. We still have people who insincerely flatter and/or bully their way to the top.  People still present false information as the truth.

The main power struggle is between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill.  It doesn’t start as a power struggle- both seem content in their roles.  Anne is extremely reliant on Sarah tell her what to do.  However, once Anne suddenly becomes the queen, things change.  Sarah pushes more and more and is around less and less.  Queen Anne sees this as disrespectful and is hurt by this.  Their friendship is broken when Sarah takes a step too far and blackmails her.  In the last moments, a broken, stubborn Sarah gives a defiant monologue.  It seems pathetic in the moment, but Sarah Churchill’s memoirs defined Queen Anne’s reign for hundreds of years.  It wasn’t positive.  Only in the past couple decades are we re-evaluating Queen Anne’s reign.

There are flaws.  I wish Abigail Hill was a bit more a present character.  She’s there and she’s involved, but this is definitely Anne and Sarah’s story.  There is a bit of expository dumping.  Given this isn’t a well-known time period, it’s understandable.  The time between England’s Civil War and the American Revolution is a bit hazy for most people.  It does ruin some of the flow a bit.  Some expository information or commentary is given in song form, which is fun.

Favorite Character:  Queen Anne has the best character arc.  She starts very timid and easily wavered and, honestly, pathetic.  By the end, she is standing for herself. I cannot express how uncommon it is to have this character arc for a woman.  Also, she a plus-sized woman! (Note- I am a plus-sized woman and especially care.)  Sarah Churchill is obviously a showier role- an excellent role- but I appreciated Queen Anne’s arc more.

Should You Read This?:  Sure!  Especially if you’re interested in English history,  history, women-led stories, and women playwrights.  Or if you’ve seen The Favourite and want a different version of the same story.

Final Thoughts: I think this is a great version of a lesser-known story in history.

The Play’s the Thing- Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale

Nell Gwynn

(image taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: I believe I first heard about this play sometime on the Shakespeare’s Globe social media.  I thought it sounded interesting, but didn’t really think about it again until it came up on my Amazon suggestions.  As I am always down for a comedy, history, or a play written by a woman (or a combination thereof), I decided to go for it. 

Summary:  When bold and flirtatious orange-seller Nell Gwynn steps in to help a struggling actor from being heckled, she never expects to be offered the chance of a lifetime.  Thanks to the newly crowned King Charles II, women are being allowed to perform for the first time on English stages.  Nell is a dynamite actress.  With her wit, beauty, and natural charisma, the audiences fall in love with her, including Charles II.  Given the opportunity to become a royal mistress, Nell must struggle between two very different worlds: the bawdy, whirlwind theatre community and the proper, political court.  Can she juggle her two loves or will it all blow up around her?

Thoughts and Analysis: It’s fascinating to go into the world of Restoration theatre, which I feel tends to get skipped a bit in the greater theatrical narrative, except the French Restoration.  It’s probably because the English Restoration for the most part isn’t that great.  It’s covered in this play that the plays of this era were often adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (like King Lear with a happy ending) or fairly voyeuristic with the addition of actresses.  The roles women were given weren’t great.  They were often there just to be pretty and add sex appeal.  And, you know, the practice of men paying to watch actresses change happened.  Yikes.

But in this play, Nell Gwynn fights for her voice to her heard.  She wants interesting, funny roles.  She also just wants respect, which makes this play such an interesting mirror to entertainment and media today. At one point, Nell criticizes her company’s playwright for writing a woman who accepts a sub-par marriage proposal.  She tells him women are people too and feel as much as men and have their own desires and needs beyond being married.  After calling Juliet “a noodle”, she suggests Shakespeare’s wife should have a go at writing a play.   This is made all the more powerful knowing a woman wrote this only a few years ago.  It’s less of a “Hahaha, can you believe people during this time believed so little of women?” and more of a “You go girl!…Oh shit, we haven’t really changed much, have we?”.  The plain fact of the matter is that women are still fighting for their voices to be heard in the entertainment industry- not just things like abuses we’ve suffered but also just letting our stories be told.  While more and more women are becoming writers and directors (and sound designers and lighting designers and scenic designers and actors and etc.) it’s still nowhere near equal to men.

I know I’m probably making this play sound much more serious than it actually is.  It’s pretty funny.  There’s quite a bit of dramatic irony in jokes that are about how modern ideas will never work, but it’s not overdone.  The actor who plays the lead women characters before Nell is a special favorite of mine because he’s so actor-y.  All of the characters in the acting troupe are pretty fun overall and if you work in theatre you know all of their types.  There’s also quite a bit of sexual innuendo and just full on sexual humor, but no actual nudity; Restoration theatre wasn’t considered high art at the time and Nell Gwynn grew up in a brothel, so it is understandable.  I’m not offended by it, but if you’re looking to do this for community theatre in a conservative area, probably proceed with caution.  It’s a pretty fair PG-13.

Because it is during Charles II’s reign, some Americans might have some issues understanding the political happenings during this play.  It’s not heavily political and it does give some exposition, but some of the jokes might land a little better with some knowledge of the time period.

Favorite Character: Most of the characters in this play are fascinating and funny, especially the ones in the theatre.  But props have to go to Nell herself.  She is the clear star of the show and a talented, funny actress would have to play her.

Should You Read This?: If you’re interested in theatre history, history in general, or like a fun comedy from a POV you don’t normally get, go for it!

Final Thoughts: I would love to read more plays like this.  It’s funny.  It’s sweet.  And it’s about women’s history in theatre.  I also want to read more stuff by Jessica Swale.

Nothing Better Than A Good Book- I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

Why I Decided To Read It: I don’t talk about it often, but I am interested in true crime.  Like many people, it’s hard to articulate why I am fascinated by it, but I am.  Maybe I’m curious on how messed up people can become; I don’t know.

This book has been the talk of true crime junkies since it came out- and well before then because of Michelle McNamara’s quality of work and her death (She died in 2016 from an undiagnosed heart condition).  I have not previously read any of Michelle McNamara’s work, but podcasts I listen to had suggested it.  I am glad I did.

Summary: For over 10 years, California state was subjected to one of the worst attacks in history.  In the mid-to-late 1970s, The East Area Rapist terrorized the Sacramento area through a series of almost 50 burglaries and rapes.  Then in the early-to-mid 1980s, The Original Night Stalker murdered at least 10 people.  It wasn’t until DNA testing became available that these two cases were officially discovered by the work of the same individual, now dubbed The Golden State Killer.  He has never been caught.  In this book, Michelle McNamara examines the facts of this case, interviews law enforcement and armchair detectives working on the case, and works herself to try to find who was responsible for one of the worst attacks in California history. 

Thoughts and Analysis: First of all, I’d like to acknowledge I listened to the audiobook version because I tend to prefer to listen to nonfiction books.  Gabra Zackman did a great job.  However, I wouldn’t encourage you to listen to it late at night because if you’re anything like me, you will get paranoid.

This story is terrifying.  One of my worst fears is someone breaking into my home and then attacking my family.  The crimes covered in this book is all that.  One of the most terrifying pieces is this book is the Golden State Killer is still out there.  As of this writing, we still don’t know who he is.  They have his DNA though.  This case is frustrating because of this.  It’s so close to being solved; one tip could blow it all open.

An interesting part of this book- which is different from a lot of nonfiction true crime books except arguably Anne Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me– is Michelle McNamara acknowledges her obsession with this case.  A lot times crime writers either attempt to not discuss their personal journey during research or they clearly show their obsession without realizing it.  Michelle McNamara openly discusses constantly checking for news while at Hollywood parties with her husband, Patton Oswalt.  Or how she finds herself in a rabbit hole of research all night.  Or how she contacts detectives and fellow at-home sleuths (one of whom is her researcher for this book).

There is a lot of research in this book.  Of course, one should expect a lot of information to wade through in a case with around 50 known rapes and at least 10 murders.  McNamara is extremely thorough, even if she doesn’t cover every event.  Her friend and researcher mention in the third part that after she passed, they went through all of her computer files and papers for this book and there were thousands of things for them to go through.  It makes me wonder what would happen if she hadn’t died early.  Would this case be closer to being solved?

Favorite Character: As this is a nonfiction book, there are no “characters” per se.  I just want to use this opportunity to reiterate how much of a gift Michelle McNamara had.  She writes so beautifully and honestly in a way I can’t describe.  She also comes across as a deeply caring, kind, dedicated person.  I could tell how much this case meant to her as well as how much it bothered her.  She carries so much sympathy and empathy for the victims and the detectives.  She’s also brilliant.  When her friend and researcher discuss finding all the files she had that they had to piece together to finish the book, you see someone who is a natural detective dedicated to this case, even if she isn’t a member of a police force (although many detectives she interviewed and worked with consider her an honorary detective). 

Should You Read This?: Absolutely, unless true crime really freaks you out.  This book gets dark.

Final Thoughts: It’s a terrifying, fascinating book that is worth the read.

The Play’s the Thing- Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon

Regency Christmas

(image taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: Sometimes, we here at The Play’s the Thing (i.e. me) wants to read important works of drama that have an effect on the theatrical world.  Sometimes, it’s just good to read something light and fun.  I like Lauren Gunderson.  I like Pride and Prejudice.  I’ve played Mary Bennet in a community theatre production of Pride and Prejudice and she’s my favorite Bennet sister.  I like Christmas.  What else is there to say?  Other than, yes, I know it’s close to Halloween, but I wanted to read this, dammit. 

Summary:  Set two years after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this play follows Mary Bennet’s own personal journey.  After being invited to her sister Elizabeth’s home, the large Pemberley estate, for Christmas, Mary doesn’t expect much.  Being the bookish middle sister, she and her family have resigned Mary to a life of spinisterhood.  Enter Arthur deBourgh- Mr. Darcy’s smart, awkward, and single cousin.  The two share an immediate connection, but will unforeseen circumstances get in the way of their happiness?

Thoughts and Analysis: First of all, I appreciate the authors’ note that they encourage diverse casting.  That is awesome.

This was a cute play.  It goes extremely quick; I read it in under two hours.  Like any Lauren Gunderson play, it’s very funny, which is important in a Jane Austen pastiche.  I feel it was a fair interpretation of where the characters of Pride and Prejudice would be in two years.  It was also contained consistent characterization from the original novel.  I did wonder where Georgiana Darcy was, though.  I liked they acknowledged the lack of Kitty and made a joke out of it.

The only original character was Arthur deBourgh, who is Darcy’s cousin.  Due to Lady Catherine’s death, he has inherited Rosings.  He’s a much more awkward Mr. Darcy, but he’s still likeable.  Like Mary, he’s an intellectual and they make a good match.

What I really appreciated was the characterization of the sisters.  I feel like in many Pride and Prejudice sequels and adaptations, most authors tend to ignore the Bennet sisters’ relationships beyond Jane and Lizzy and sometimes Lydia.  Or at the very least, there often isn’t the full shade of emotions that sisterhood entails between all the sisters.  There is a lot of annoyance, but not a lot of caring.  This play was different.  I really got the sense of sisterhood between the Bennet girls because there was a balance of emotions.  There was snippy-ness, but there was also concern and meddling.

Favorite Character: Please, it was Mary.  She’s funny.  She’s nerdy.  She strives to know her place in the world.  I totally related to her. 

Should You Read This?: If you like Jane Austen, it’s worth a shot. 

Final Thoughts: Miss Bennet is a cute, fun romantic comedy that makes a light read.

The Play’s The Thing- M. Butterfly

M Butterfly

(Image taken from Google)

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang

Why I Decided To Read It: One of the things I have been doing with this project is read plays that are not by white cis-hetero men.  Because so much of canonical theatre (and most forms of art and media) is done by these men, I think it’s important to find other people’s point of view.  As a society, we need to make an effort to understand everyone’s point of view for a multitude of reasons.  I remembered David Henry Hwang mentioned when discussing modern theatre in one of my college classes, but we ultimately didn’t read one of his plays.  However, I put him and specifically M. Butterfly in the back of my mind because I enjoy modern retellings or deconstructions of popular myths or pieces of media.  I eventually fond the play at my local Half-Price Books (incidentally the same trip I found and bought Intimate Apparel) and decided to get it.

Summary:  Stuckin a jail cell in 1988, French diplomat to China Rene Gallimard begins reliving his actions leading him to his current situation.  Beginning in 1960, Gallimard vividly retells the tale of meeting his “ideal woman”, Chinese opera singer Song Liling.  Gallimard considers Song his own Madame Butterfly- beautiful, submissive, and conservative yet sexual.  They embark on a twenty year relationship where Gallimard passes his lover government secrets.  But Song is not all that “she” seems.  Song is actually a male Chinese spy feeding Gallimard’s sexist and racist desires to get information.  So caught up in his fantasy, Gallimard has problems acknowledging the truth went it comes out.  This psychologically deep play discusses what is love and examines the power fantasies that is so ingrained in Western culture.

Thoughts and Analysis: There is just so much to unpack for this play. There is of course the discussions of sexism and racism that is the main crux of the play.  There is also its place in the theatrical canon, its relevancy today, and how companies choose to market the play.  I would personally loved to have the opportunity to talk about this in a class because there is a lot to discuss.

It’s kind of amazing- in the horrifying way- how relevant this play still is today.  Until I looked it up, I had no idea the play is being revived on Broadway right now, which seems fitting.  It was written 30 years ago, but it still seems fresh because the racism and sexism still applies.  Hwang masterfully dismantles how problematic many people in the West view Asian women: that they’re submissive and modest but sexy.  It’s very much a power fantasy.  You still see it today with white guys fetishizing Asian women through anime and other forms of media.  It’s sexist because it’s denying women’s equality to men and it’s racist because it enforces ugly stereotypes that Asian people are weak and easy to dominate.  This play calls that behavior out by deconstructing the opera Madame Butterfly.  Gallimard is obsessed with the opera and Song uses that information to inform his actions.  At times, I found myself rolling my eyes at some of what Gallimard was saying, but I think that’s the point.

I think M. Butterfly deserves a place in the larger theatrical canon for a number of reasons.  First of all, it’s just a brilliant play.   It’s well-written and thought out.  As it is written by an Asian-American, it’s not a point-of-view we often get in theatre.  It also marks a point in a change in American theatre.  At this point in the 80s and into the 90s, we see a definite shift from realism or the avant-garde to a blend of the two.  There’s a bit of realism, Brechtian techniques, and a sort of magical realism in here.  This trend continues into the modern day.

There’s so much more worth discussing in this play, but I don’t have the space here to cover it all.  What I do want to discuss is the marketing some companies do in promoting this play.  I probably wouldn’t discuss this if I hadn’t watched some of the Broadway commercials.  They don’t advertise who is playing Song and they emphasize the love story aspect of the play.  I watched the trailer for the film version and it’s similar.  I think it’s fascinating that the advertise on the stereotype and then subvert it in the play itself.  I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s interesting.  I guess it depends if it’s intentional.

Favorite Character: Song is such an interesting character because there are so many motivations that we don’t know.  They have to be decided by the actor and director.

Should You Read This?: Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  It’s fascinating and covers issues that do not get enough discussion.

Final Thoughts: M. Butterfly is a modern classic that is worth the read.