WICA’s fresh take on “Sleuth” is a thrill ride

— Created February 14, 2024 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Take the script from a successful 70s-era stage production, combine it with a 2007 remake of the original play and it becomes a thrillingly tantalizing production at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley.

“Sleuth,” a Tony Award winning play written by Anthony Shaffer in 1970 and adapted (for the second time) for the big screen in 2007 by Harold Pinter, is currently onstage at WICA, under the direction of David Churchill. Performances continue Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. through Feb. 24, and one final matinee performance takes place Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets and information on all upcoming performances are available at wicaonline.org.

WICA’s Artistic Executive Director, Deana Duncan, who is currently in New York City stage-managing a show, told Whidbey Weekly via email this was a project she had looked at often in the past.

Photo Courtesy of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts
“Sleuth,” currently on stage at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley, pits two men against each other in a thrilling adaptation of the story.  Ethan Berkley, left, plays Milo Tindle while David Mayer takes on the role of Andrew Wyke.

“‘Sleuth’ is considered a classic in the ‘thriller’ genre and a piece WICA has looked at for years,” she said. “With Langley filling up for the annual Murder Mystery weekend, we try to program something in February we know that crowd will enjoy.”

“This adaptation emerged after realizing we needed a quick paced version with a run time less than Shaffer’s original script of two hours and 18 minutes,” director David Churchill shared in an email to Whidbey Weekly. “Pinter’s lean style and sparse, biting language propels the action at a much quicker pace than the original. It also draws more humor out of the character’s plight than the Shaffer script. We kept Shaffer’s ending because the characters’ stakes are higher, which allows the actors to mine deeper emotions, and in turn, allows the audience to experience stronger reactions to the twists and shocks the characters go through.”

In a nutshell, Churchill describes “Sleuth” as a rather cruel game of jealousy and revenge, and a story he’s been fascinated by for a long while.

“A wealthy crime novelist invites his wife’s lover to his home in order to satisfy his jealous revenge by perpetrating a cruel game upon him,” he explained. “The game escalates and spirals out of control as each man tries to outdo the other, with deadly consequences. 

Photo Courtesy of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts
Can Milo Tindle (Ethan Berkley), left, and Andrew Wyke (David Mayer) outwit each other in the ultimate game of cat and mouse? Check out “Sleuth,” a new adaptation of the award-winning play at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley.

“I’ve been fascinated by this story ever since I saw the 1972 film, captivated by the masterful performances of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine,” Churchill continued. “It has universal appeal, with its themes of jealousy, class snobbery, and the pointless destruction of revenge. The plot twists are brilliant and shocking, and keep audiences guessing until the final, agonizing moments.”

David Mayer plays Andrew Wyke, a crime novelist, who he describes as a “devilish rake.” He said one should never underestimate the value of a top-notch script.

“It means so much to what we can accomplish and enjoy to have a great plot, rich characters, and rhythmic writing,” he shared in an email. “As important as these are to the audience, actors also relish the chance to dig deeply into the lives of other people and find something unexpected yet, somehow, the only thing that could be.”

Mayer said he has enjoyed not only working with Churchill, but also with Ethan Berkley, who plays Milo Tindle, and Berkley’s real-life cousin, Jonathan Janus, who is making his WICA debut in the role of Inspector Black. 

“It’s also been a fairly collaborative experience,” he said. “To have the trust of your director, as ‘Church’ has shown us, is a blessing. He helps us find our own way, and we don’t waste his time. I also just like these gents. I’ve worked with them on multiple occasions, always with smiles at the end. And the design crew, like stage management, costumes and props, have been spot-on, really caring for us and the space.”

Photo Courtesy of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts
Crime novelist Andrew Wyke (David Mayer) plots the ultimate revenge in “Sleuth,” now on stage at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. But the story is filled with unexpected twists and turns that will keep audiences guessing about what will happen next.

A powerful script leads to powerful moments onstage. For Mayer’s character, who never leaves the stage, that can be challenging.

“There’s no real rest, and lots to do and say,” he said. “Coordination of some of our sub-scenes is about the characters. But there’s a bonus there too, as I get to live a full arc on stage. So I become enthralled in who Andrew is and what he’s experiencing. The time flies. Also, matching the thrilling drama with moments of true humor is a trick. You want the laughs to be a bit of tension-release while keeping people on the edges of seats and caring about the characters.”

Setting the tone and mood for this thriller began with the set, recycled from WICA’s last production, and important details play a big role.

“We are reusing the set from our December production of ‘Falstaff in Love,’ adding a small room and built in bookcase and a beautiful front door, but it’s the same stunning set, complete with glowing fireplace,” Duncan said.

“The mood is alternately dark, brooding, mysterious, and harsh, mercurial, unnerving,” described Churchill. “This is achieved through every choice regarding costuming, lighting, sound, set design, actor movement and aspect, all of it. It’s a natural process accomplished by careful interpretation of the writer’s intent. For example, the lighting, heavily shadowed at points along the way, helps convey the deeper, darker, hidden motivations of the two men, base feelings we all have but keep buried.”

“I love seeing the development of the artistic voice in this production,” added Duncan. “It is a wonderful homage to literary greats like Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and yet takes a modern approach to the original ‘Sleuth’ play and films. Throughout the process, I’ve enjoyed witnessing director David Churchill’s creativity in action, and I know that it’s going to be a truly unique and impactful production.”

A recent winner of the Gregory Award for best theater in the North Region from Theatre Puget Sound (TPS) is another boost for Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.

Photo Courtesy of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts
Jealousy and revenge are two key components in the story of “Sleuth,” now on stage at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. Has Milo Tindle (Ethan Berkley) met his match when he visits the home of Andrew Wyke (David Mayer)?

“With that distinction, our theater shows are now being adjudicated by TPS auditors for the annual Seattle award ceremonies,” said Duncan. “‘Sleuth’ is being seen for Best Play, Best Director, Best Actor, and Sound and Light Design! We are very excited that our local productions have reached this level of professional standards.”

Duncan said she hopes people will come out in force to support the community arts center and its latest production, while Churchill and Mayer say this is a show mystery lovers will not want to miss, regardless of whether one has seen any of the previous versions of the story.

“This clever, caustic game of deception escalates into psychological warfare; if you love games and mystery you won’t want to miss this production,” Duncan said. “Although there are similarities to the original play as well as the two films, this is a truly original production with many plot twists. We really invite you to come along for the ride and witness the creativity and intrigue in person.”

“There’s enough to thoroughly entertain even if you know the ending,” said Mayer. “If you don’t, come in fresh and see if you can outwit these two prize fighters.”

“[Audiences] should strap themselves into their seats and hang on for all the shocks and twists and thrills,” said Churchill. “Because this is what live theater is all about that no other art form can deliver – an exciting, visceral experience of the dramatic here and now, each moment unique and impactful, never to be exactly repeated.”