The Highwood Theatre’s Summer Series this year is a walk on the dark side.
With a production of “Sweeney Todd” underway, the theater’s two-week Active Intensive Company is now presenting “And Then There Were None” for a two-day run from Aug. 2-3.
The musical and play are bound together by the cyclical nature of revenge and violence, said Matthew Nicola, artistic director of Highwood.
Written by the “queen of mystery” Agatha Christie, first as a novel and then as a play, “And Then There Were None” concerns eight strangers, summoned to a British island for an undisclosed purpose. They then disappear one by one in the order of the “Ten Little Soldiers” nursery rhyme. The man who invited them is Old Justice Wargrave, and he has murder in mind, presumably because each of them has been guilty of someone’s death.
The truth is Wargrave has a thirst for blood. He was a hanging judge, going against juries’ decisions to declare people innocent by executing them anyway, said Liz Daingerfield, who is making her directorial debut at Highwood.
“‘And Then There Were None’ has an interesting history,” she added. Christie originally ended her play with one couple surviving and falling in love. But a later version restored the novel’s more-nihilistic ending, and that is the one Highwood chose.
“Our version is a lot darker” than the original play, Daingerfield said. “All of Wargrave’s twisted games make more sense and are a lot more interesting.”
The actors in the production are aged 9-14, but the director is not afraid of their reactions.
“We can make the mistake of dumbing things down,” she said, “and that’s not productive, really. The kids rose to the occasion.”
The production relies on mirrors and candlelight to create a nightmarish look at the darkness within all of us, said Nicola.
The actors are given more stage time when they come back as ghost presences.
A bit unconventionally, Daingerfield cast a girl as Wargrave. She is Norah Lesperance, a ninth-grader at Albert Einstein High School appearing in her second Highwood show. The first was a musical comedy.
Lesperance said she was surprised when she was asked to read for Wargrave. She admitted that ever since she was cast into the role, it was a real challenge preparing for the play. First, because of Wargrave’s gender, and second, because of his character.
To understand a man who is both evil and insane, Lesperance said she drew on the “wild emotion a teenage girl can experience.” She also watched several TV shows and Netflix to research her role. For example, Professor Moriarty in “Sherlock” could be a role model, in a negative sense. And, like a Jekyll and Hyde, she will look at her facial expressions in the mirror to approximate evil.
“All Wargrave’s life he wanted to take lives,” she said. “He acts like a normal guy, then surprises you. At the end, he goes on a crazy tyrannical rant.”
Also new to Lesperance is using an accent.
In the original novel, Wargrave is an older man, more than 60, she said. But the actor is not worried about that.
As to being a man, she has learned to stand with her feet apart and her chest expanded. But, Lesperance laughed, she also likes “to be a leader, act smart and be in charge.”
There is no question that the play’s violence is gruesome, but it is not presented in a fully realistic way, Daingerfield said. “And there is a lesson to be learned: the cyclical violence has happened in the past and will repeat itself if we’re not careful.”
“And Then There Were None” runs Aug. 2 at 8 p.m., and Aug. 3 at 1 and 4 p.m., at The Highwood Theatre’s performance venue, 1000 Spring Street, downtown Silver Spring. www.thehighwoodtheatre.org. 301-587-0697.