Skillfully presented, this streaming audio play “A murder in the court of Xanadu” presented by A Theater in the Dark is a jumble of characters and events that in the end I simply did not care about.
I truthfully cannot give you a synopsis of this play. I enjoyed listening to it but ultimately do not understand anyone’s motivation for doing whatever they did and am not sure why it was interesting or important.
It was kind of like listening to a Chinese opera. I do not speak Chinese but I might walk away understanding that someone was rich, someone was a conniving trusted advisor, someone got killed, and in the end, someone got something of value that maybe was surprising and undeserved. But I could not catch the details. In the meantime, it was oddly enjoyable to listen to because the vocal tones and rhythm of the presentation with its evocative incidental music was pleasing.
The place of Xanadu is known to most of us a symbol of utopian excess perhaps best remembered from the Samuel Coleridge poem of the same name. In fact, as a result of a recent Jeopardy question on the popular TV game show, I was able to immediately recall the opening words “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree,” though I have no recollection of ever reading the entire poem.
We might also be familiar with “Xanadu” as the name of the mansion in the well know movie “Citizen Kane.” In this case I can tell you that Kane was a Khan-like business ruler with a strong desire for beauty and excessive wealth. I know this because I learned as much through the storyline. The story of Citizen Kane challenges us to try to understand the motivation behind the main character’s actions.
In “A murder in the court of Xanadu” we are basically told, though a narrator, who the characters are rather than have them reveal themselves to us. There is no discernible mystery to unravel and no reason to be interested in the fates of a number of greedy self-centered individuals who do not seem to have derived their wealth or status through any particular talent or ability of their own.
The standout performance for me was Erin Lin as Marla who acts as a kind of narrator. Her voice was clear, expressive and well modulated with a kind of musical quality. I would be happy to listen to her read or recite virtually anything.
The theater’s website suggests that the character of Marla is inspired by Marco Polo who incidentally provided the earliest description of the Khan’s pleasure retreat. However, this relationship is totally lost to the uninformed listener, and one or two periodic allusions to Venice in my mind only added to the confusion. I feel strongly that a theatergoer should not have to bring any previous knowledge to the experience in order to understand the action.
Nessa Amherst as Marigold provided nearly all of the much needed auditory contrast, providing a kind of comic quality and strong characterization.
I felt that all of the male actors including Robinson J. Cyprian (Kane), Van Ferro (An Actor Who Plays Many Parts), and Gabriel Fries (Ahmad) understood what they were saying (even if I did not), delivering their lines with conviction. I would have enjoyed more vocal variety between the three of them and a little more resonance from Cyprian who I remember gave us more vocal depth in his performance of Ahab in the company’s performance of “Moby Dick.”
If there is any fault to be assigned it belongs to the author Cory Bradberry who has demonstrated through his previous works a real ability and commitment to this genre. That said, this is not a disaster but rather a miss. Perhaps with a bit more work and revision he can overcome whatever it is that is lacking.
Bradberry does partially cover his tracks through his exceptional direction. The performance does have an overall lyrical quality and pleasing tone that is enhanced through just enough foley work to provide some needed ambiance with a very enjoyable use of an original musical score by Paul Sottnik.
DETAILS: “A murder in the court of Xanadu” presented by A Theater in the Dark is available for streaming beginning November 3, 2022 at www.atheaterinthedark.com Runtime is about 90 minutes.
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