Backstage With "The Maltese Falcon"

04/16/10 5:30PM By Susan Keese
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Marcus DeSieno

(Host) The grandson of New England Bach Festival founder Blanche Moyse, is spending the spring as a guest director at Marlboro College.

This weekend he's directing a student production of "The Maltese Falcon." It's based on the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett and the  film that propelled Humphrey Bogart to stardom. 

VPR's Susan Keese takes us backstage for a preview.

(Keese) Director Joshua Moyse grew up in Vermont. His grandparents started the music department at Marlboro College.

Moyse has spent the last decade and a half working in avante gard theater in New York and Los Angeles. And he wanted to take his students - and himself - on a new theatrical adventure.

(Moyse) ‘I've been adapting short stories and novels for the stage for many years now. But I'd never tackled something that was famous both as film and literature." 

Even before creating a script, he had everyone in the cast read the Dashiell Hammett book and absorb its slangy, staccato dialogue.

Marcus DeSieno

(Moyse) "We watched some old film noir so we kind of got the style down and understood that in that world the tough guys are tough but more often the women are tougher." 

(Keese) The Marlboro production, with its mostly black and white costumes, mimics and occasionally mocks film noir.

"The Maltese Falcon" is the story of Sam Spade, a hard boiled but honest detective whose partner is killed while the two are working on a case. 

As he tries to solve the murder, Spade encounters some bizarre underworld characters, involved in  the pursuit of a mysterious statue of a black falcon.

No one wants the statue more than the manipulative Kaspar Gutman - the fat man, played by Sydney Greenstreet in the film. At Marlboro, he's portrayed by Jacob Bruck, a rather thin freshman who wears a fat suit in the play. 

Marcus DeSieno
Gutman tries to get Spade's help AND learn what others know about the falcon and its secret. Spade is played by Freshman Henry White.

(Gutman) "They must know what it is. But if they don't.... Do they, do they sir, do they know what it is? What was your impression?"

(Spade)" Can't be much help. Cairo didn't say he  did and didn't say he didn't. She said she did, but I assumed she was lying.

(Gutman) "Oh yes, that was not an injudicious thing to do. Huh! Maybe they don't know. And I'm the only one in the whole wide world who does."

(Spade) " I'm glad I came to the right place.".

(Gutman) " By Damn! Your glass is empty.. (walks). Oh, sir this kind of medicine will never hurt you."

(Spade)" Here's to plain speaking and clear understanding." 

(Keese) But nothing is clear or plain in this production. It's a study in contradiction, deception, and shifting versions of reality.

Spade's client Brigid O'Shaughnessy, played by Samantha Hohl, repeatedly admits to Spade that she's a liar. 

But she needs his help. And Spade, who's finally met his match, begins to fall in love with her. 

(Brigid) "Be Generous Mr Spade... you can help me. Help me.

(Spade) "You don't need much of anybody's help. You're good, you're very good. It's the twinkle in your eyes I think, or the throb you get in your voice when you say things like, ‘be generous Mr. Spade."

(Brigid)" I deserve that. It's my own fault you can't believe me now."

(Spade) " Yeah, you are dangerous". 

(Keese) The stage is made to look like a film set, with two live movie cameras at the corners. Sometimes the actors turn their backs to the audience and speak to the camera.

Marcus DeSieno

Their larger-than life images are projected on a screen angled above the stage, so you're always wondering where the real action is. 

Moyse says that's part of the point.

(Moyse) " In theater you can meld the literature and cinema together  to create a hybrid, and the sum of it can be greater than the parts. And that's what we're striving for here."

(Keese) What emerges in this play are lessons about love, and maybe morality, and a *story that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat, even when you're not sure what's really happening. 

For VPR Backstage, I'm Susan Keese.

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