‘Laura’ at Cockpit in Court by Amanda Gunther

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The dark and stormy night. The shadowy detective. The dame in distress. The murder. The mystery. All of the signature notes of crime noir are bundled up in one tight suspenseful package as Cockpit in Court presents its final stage show of its 40th Anniversary season in the 1940’s film classic adapted for the stage Laura. The very essence of a crime thriller is sprung upon the audience as a murder mystery unfolds before their eyes. Love, lust, and motives run high in this edge-of-your-seat drama, where the classic whodunit takes a sharp twist up a spiraling cliff on its way to a maddening conclusion.

(l to r) Detective Mark McPherson (Greg Guyton), Shelby Carpenter (Jeb Beard), Detective Chen (Eric Chen) and Waldo Lydecker (Phil Gallagher). Photo by James Hunnicut and Cockpit in Court.

We’re instantly propelled back in time to that preserved era of fine luxury and elegant class as the lights are brought up on the set. Designed by Sherrionne Brown, the set invites the audience into Laura’s decadent world. Antiques lining the makeshift shelves, the luxurious sofas and chairs, accompanied by the stunning portrait of the title character, all combining to create a sense of regal aristocracy in the simple space.

The feel of the drama’s era is further enhanced by Costume Designer James J. Fashing’s color schemes. There are worlds of beige explored in this show; Detective McPherson’s ensemble, Lydecker and Carpenter’s suit, off-set by the severe shades of black and glitter seen on ‘girl.’ These costumes are crafted in such a way that you expect the lights to dim and for the action to suddenly take place in black and white just like the old time film it’s modeled after.

Director Sherrionne Brown keeps the audience in rapt attention as each character becomes a piece of the puzzle, one after another arising as a suspect in the murder mystery. Brown captures the essence of this dark genre by modeling her characters after the deep-rooted stereotypes: the budding love found between the hard-knocks detective and the dame who desperately needs him, the shady nogoodnik fiancée, the haughtily British and very jealous best friend; each of these highly specialized characters adds a layer of suspense and thrilling excitement to the drama as it unfolds.

And there is sensational acting all around from this cast of extremely talented performers. Even the more minor characters, like Besse the house maid (Joan Crooks) manages to make an unforgettable presence on the stage. Crooks has very few lines as the servant, but provides a brilliant bout of comic relief in this otherwise serious and dark drama. She embodies her character with an upbeat attitude and has quirky remarks no matter what the situation, making each moment she crosses the stage a lively one.

The shady fiancée Shelby Carpenter (Jeb Beard) is quick to show off his dark side during explosive moments of confrontation between he and ‘girl.’ Beard adapts a sleazy southern accent and never once lets the audience doubt his motives of money and power while on the stage. He portrays a villainous character without ever missing a beat and gives everyone good cause to suspect he’s at the bottom of the mystery.

Playing opposite of Beard is the rather frigid and astute British Waldo Lydecker (Phil Gallagher). His lacerating tongue is pointedly articulate and splashes sharp colors to his gray personality. Gallagher is the most versatile performer on the stage, second only to ‘girl’ in his quick-change attitude. He is  a compelling story teller, drawing the audience in with his slow recounting of events gone by, and easily shakes things up with a vicious and malicious verbal assault upon ‘girl’ late in Act III.

And no crime noir tale would be complete without the victim and the detective. Girl (Melissa O’Brien) and Mark McPherson (Greg Guyton) peg so perfectly into these roles that it’s a wonder they weren’t pulled straight from the silver screen. The level of fiery chemistry between them is always overshadowed by their roles in the story; the detective on the case and her desperation for him to believe her.

(l to r) Detective Mark McPherson (Greg Guyton), Shelby Carpenter (Jeb Beard), Detective Chen (Eric Chen) and Waldo Lydecker (Phil Gallagher). Photo by James Hunnicut and Cockpit in Court.

Guyton is all business; rough around the edges with his interrogations but soft in his interactions with O’Brien. Every time he pops into the scene you expect to hear the classic Dick Tracy music accompanying him as he’s every bit the iconic detective you expect him to be. His accusations are formed sharply on his tongue and he keeps the audience on the cusp of anticipation as he comes closer and closer to unraveling the mystery.

O’Brien is a sensation upon the stage. Equal parts lounge lizard aristocrat and desperate naïve woman, she is beyond impressive in her ability to play the part of the innocent. Her sensual feminine spark inspires questions about who she really is; even her physicality undulates that smooth notion of the girl in distress who has a calamitous secret to hide. Her falsely padded innocence so easily displayed with a simple pout here, and a simpering protest there hides her darker intentions and makes her a smash in this role.

This intense mystery will have you questioning just who is who and what is what, but before it’s all over the epic conclusion will unwind and the detective may just crack the case. Be sure not to miss the mystery of the summer at Cockpit in Court’s production of Laura.

Girl (Melissa O'Brien) and Detective Mark McPherson (Greg Guyton). Photo by James Hunnicut and Cockpit in Court.

Running time: Two hours with one intermission.

Laura plays through August 5, 2012 in the upstairs cabaret of the Theatre Building of the Community of College of Baltimore County Essex Campus – 7201 Rossville Boulevard, in Rosedale, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 840-2787, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.