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Review: 'Witness for the Prosecution'

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Bearing all the familiar but enjoyably unexpected twists and turns of a country road, Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution is a welcome, stylishly staged entry to close the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' 2005-06 season.

On Paul Shortt's superior set -- a re-creation of the Old Bailey and of a comfortable, old-fashioned wood-paneled London office -- the venerable mystery has overtones of a more formal episode of Law & Order yet remains a fine courtroom drama. Michael Evan Haney directs without undue histrionics, allowing Christie's complex plot to remain front and center.

Joneal Joplin, marking his 34th season and 87th production at the Rep, is a splendid Sir Wilfrid Robarts, with good help from the contrasting style of Robert Langdon Lloyd as his legal teammate, Mr. Mayhew. Christopher Kelly is outstanding as Leonard Vole, the predatory lounge lizard whose success in courting lonely, wealthy older women leads to the accusation that he murdered one who had recently changed her will to benefit him.

Into this mix comes the mysterious Romaine, played with a slight Middle European accent by Deanne Lorette; the character's contrast with the play's staid Englishmen is a bright detail of the production. Vole and Romaine may or may not be married, something that adds more twists to the action. The differences between the sexes are further highlighted by Tarah Flanagan's Greta, Sir Wilfrid's perky receptionist.

Christie's venerable play, produced on Broadway in 1954, may occasionally be creaky and its characters may sometimes seem altogether stereotypical, but the performances -- especially Joplin as the defense attorney, Michael Rothhaar as the judge, and Lorette, who easily shifts through various personalities -- are solid physically and emotionally.

Witness for the Prosecution runs March 15-April 14 on the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves, Mo. Tickets: (314) 968-4925. Website: www.repstl.org.

Note: The Rep's new season begins Sept. 6 with a world-premiere musical, Ace, with music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor, followed by Of Mice and Men, The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, Heartbreak House, The Heidi Chronicles, and Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. The Rep's Off-Ramp stage will produce The Pillowman, Shakespeare's R&J, and Urinetown.

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