In adapting Dashiell Hammett’s novel for the stage, Theatre de la Jeune Lune has created a stylish, mood-soaked homage to the detective-thriller genre in American film and fiction. More than a mere gumshoe crime play, however, “Red Harvest” is an affectionate tribute to the tried-and-true conventions of Hammett’s oeuvre, with a little tongue-in-cheek playfulness thrown in for fun — and just enough blood to let you know the game is serious.
Set in a small Montana town overrun by mobsters and corrupt officials, “Red Harvest” follows a nameless detective’s efforts to get to the bottom of the town’s graft problem. Each day, it seems, there is a new murder to solve, but the likeliest suspects keep killing each other.
“The story is complicated — pay attention,” the detective tells his sidekick — and that’s good advice. For one thing, there are dames involved. And dames, as everyone knows, mean trouble.
Half the fun of detective stories is getting dragged in a state of utter confusion through a tangle of dirty double-crosses and hidden agendas. In that regard, “Red Harvest” moves along at a fine clip, turning up new bodies as fast as it serves up fresh clues. But Jeune Lune’s stylish staging is the main attraction.
It may be set in the fictional Montana town of Personville (“Poisonville” to the natives), but everything here happens at night, in the shadows, where things are hardly ever what they seem. The lighting comes from all angles, casting long silhouettes across the stage, more often than not through a set of Venetian blinds. Set changes are effected with a series of moveable scrims on which pieces of Edward Hopper’s famous painting “The Diner” are painted.
At other times, the changing of a set is often nothing more than a shift in mood created by a clever new lighting scheme. Many of these schemes are immediately recognizable film-noir cliches, but because they are so familiar they acquire a rejuvenating freshness onstage — style as cultural icon.
Dashiell Hammett’s style isn’t quite as transparent as his imitators, though. For one thing, his characters are more complicated. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, say, his detectives are vulnerable to their work; every once in a while, the paranoia and bloodshed gets to them.
The detective in “Red Harvest” (played with world-weary grit by Robert Rosen) is no exception: He’s not above getting drunk or stealing a kiss in the line of duty, but in his moral universe he always has to pay for his indiscretions somehow — it’s the law.
Jeune Lune knows these rules well, and plays off the audience’s knowledge of them to engage their imagination. But they have plenty of fun with it, too. Every time our detective hero comes back to his apartment, he must engage in a ritual wrestling match with his sidekick, Mickie (Joel Spence), before he can have a drink. And Dinah Brand (Sarah Agnew), a “dame who’ll sell anything for a price,” can stop the action for a few pregnant heartbeats simply by pulling on a pair of black stockings.
The dialogue and sound are important elements, too. A number of microphones are placed around the stage so that when a potentially dangerous conversation takes place, the actors can hunch over the microphone, creating a nifty sense of aural intimacy. The dialogue is clipped and snappy, drifting between words lifted off the pages of Hammett to clever parodies of lines you’ve heard hundreds of times but can’t quite place. “Play around with murder long enough and you begin to like it,” our detective hero explains.
What’s not to like?