The Mystery of Edwin Drood
It was a dark and stormy night when The Mystery of Edwin Drood first premiered at Brown. Perhaps not stormy, but it was certainly a windy evening as the audience poured into Alumnae Hall for the premiere of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a play put on by Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan. BUGS was first created in 2004, and has, in recent years, been focusing on producing modernized works by Gilbert and Sullivan.
The play was inspired by Charles Dickens’ final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens passed away before writing the ending, leaving the manuscript woefully unfinished. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave any notes about his intended conclusion, leaving critics to debate for years about what the outcome was supposed to be.
BUGS decided to take a much more immersive look at the novel and actively involved the audience from the moment people walked in. Various members of the cast, all dressed in costume with surprisingly smart English accents told people that audience members would be required to vote on the outcome of the play. By speaking to passing crew members, I learned that the actors had practiced every single potential outcome of the play, which was impressive, given the innumerable endings possible.
The play included the audience members at each step. The narrator continuously made jokes that broke the fourth wall, using his humor and wit to further engage viewers with the story.
The plethora of characters could have been difficult to keep track of, but thankfully each one was introduced as they came onstage. We soon were immersed in the story of Edwin, the nephew of music teacher John Jasper, and Edwin’s fiance, Rosa Bud. The play follows the lives of Edwin and Rosa as they attempt to come to terms with their betrothal. Their confusion and lack of genuine passion spilled outside their relationship, sparking contention with secondary characters, particularly the multitude of suitors trying to win Rosa’s affections.
A broad range of characters were involved throughout the play, from jealous lovers of Rosa’s, such as Neville Landless, to the elegant leader of an opium den, Princess Puffer. BUGS did an excellent job of casting actors with a complimentary strengths, excellent singing voices, and distinct personalities.
The crew also did an impressive job with the show’s production. The lighting played to the increasing drama and tension as the murder we were told to expect from the very beginning drew near. The suspense was particularly heightened by the beautiful and suspenseful music of the orchestra.
The highlight of the play occurred after the intermission, when the narrator explained that they had run out of the official novel and the audience was to decide what would occur next. The audience chose the identity of the detective by cheering for their pick. Choosing the murderer was more involved- cast members came to each group of people and took down a tally of people’s votes on paper.
Because of the involved nature of the story, it was easy to fall into the play and feel included. We were told from the beginning that we would be required to cast votes guessing at the identities of the murderer and the detective, forcing the audience to critically examine each character’s suspicious actions.
The narrator shared with the audience the many theories scholars have thrown around as potential endings to Dickens’ novels, but they still allowed the audience’s imagination to rule the outcome of the show- an exciting departure from the norm.
Overall, BUGS production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood was a uniquely engaging show. By the end of it, we were all thoroughly invested in its outcome, thanks largely to the cast, who did an excellent job of taking the audience along on the characters’ journeys. Even if the final outcome may never be known, Charles Dickens surely left the theater world with an interesting story that requires collaboration to complete.