On June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens was halfway through his 15th novel when he “committed the one ungenerous act of his entire career — he died.” That novel was “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” The titular mystery concerns Drood himself, a young orphan whose disappearance in the novel may have something to do with his opium-addicted uncle John Jasper. It’s hard to say — the story is half-finished, so the mystery is unsolved. The most readers can do is speculate.
However, the novel — although it’s Dickens’ last — is only the first incarnation of the story. Like every other of his major books, “Drood” has been adapted many times over — most notably in a staged version of the mystery. In this rendering, audience members wield considerable power in deciding Drood’s destiny. It’s a madcap, over-the-top musical which nevertheless contains plenty of the original, Dickensian spirit. It’s also the First Year Players’ chosen spring production, which ran April 25 through 28 at the Student Activities Building. The beloved CIO brought their own madcap, over-the-top personality to the show, proving it to be a perfect fit.
Anyone who has read Dickens knows that his books feature enormous, motley casts of characters distinguishable only by their distinctive quirks, and “Drood” is no different. Whether it’s the “good woman of ill repute” Princess Puffer (played by Engineering student Caroline Roden) and her notorious opium den, which Drood’s diabolical druggie uncle Jasper (College student Micah Rucci) frequents, enigmatic foreigners Helena and Neville Landless (College students Aubrey Hill and Nick Martinez), or Bazzard (College student Heath Yancey), a fame-hungry waiter lurking in the shadows of the story, the plot is populated by bizarre and memorable personalities. Once Act II begins, the morality of these characters falls under closer scrutiny as the question of who murdered the apparently dead Drood — played by cross-dressing College student Karen Zipor — becomes central to the story.
The convoluted cast is even more tangled by the fact that “Drood” exists as a meta-narrative — that is to say, each student plays a British actor, who in turn plays a part in the Dickens story. Jasper is also Mr. Clive Paget, the Princess is actually Miss Angela Prysock and so on. Moderating the story to help the likely baffled audience keep track is the “Chairman,” Mr. William Cartwright (Engineering student Kyle Goodson).
If the plot sounds difficult to keep track of, don’t worry — keeping track isn’t really the point. Before the mystery gets started, the Chairman encouraged the audience to be “as vulgar and uncivilized as legally possible,” suggesting that his castmates would be doing the same. And true to his word, every scene of the musical was drenched in slapstick, sex or some combination of the two. The story took a backseat to the ridiculous antics onstage, which also kept the audience engaged for the impressive three-hour runtime.
“Drood’s” inherent absurdity didn’t ruin the opportunity for dramatic performance — although, admittedly, such performances verged on the melodramatic. As Jasper, Rucci was laughably extreme as the supposed villain, but his handling of the role occasionally slipped into the serious, acknowledging that his character’s mania stems from the very real problem of addiction.
Rosa Bud, or Miss Deirdre Peregrine (College student Caitlin Woodford) also brilliantly wavered between humorous and harrowing in her role as Drood’s betrothed and the object of Jasper’s creepy affections. Woodford’s theatrical chops were on full display in the musical, as she sang an operatic solo in one scene and danced impressive ballet in another.
Even such excellent acting — and it should be noted that the current crop of FYP performers are some of the most talented in years — might not alone be sufficient to keep audiences hooked for such a long production. The second act’s structure, then — in which viewers got to vote on the identity of the murderer and the disguised Detective Datchery, along with choosing which two characters would end up as lovers — was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the show’s creators. Audience members who might have slumped in their seats during intermission perked up again, eager to raise a certain number of fingers to vote for Drood’s killer or to indicate by applause which characters they thought should become romantically involved.
The elements which set every FYP production apart were present at “Drood.” A disparaging comment was made about the “humble theater” space of the SAB — although, with Victorian-style maroon and gold set design, the concrete box looked considerably spruced-up. The students of the excellent band, who provided live accompaniment for the many musical numbers, were referenced directly in a few scenes. And of course, FYP’s beloved mascot — Ishy, or Ishmael, the duck — was slipped not-so-casually into a dinner party scene to massive applause from those audience members in the know.
“Drood” provides no clear moral at the end of its shorter Act II — in fact, its choose-your-own-adventure style actively campaigns against a greater meaning. It’s questionable whether Dickens, ever a master of sentimentality, would be amused or annoyed by this rowdy interpretation of his unfinished mystery. But just as the creators of the show were not presumably concerned with pleasing the story’s long-dead, original author, so did the members of FYP seem much more invested in entertaining their audiences at the SAB. Once again, they have succeeded, creating a show that’s “damned confusing,” as the Chairman complained at one point, but that’s also undeniably fun.