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Audience-jury gives '16th' verdict


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POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ayn Rand wrote “;The Night of January 16th”; as a message play with a gimmick — the verdict in a murder case is determined by a jury comprising 12 members of the audience.

Murder victim Bjorn Faulkner lived strictly according to his own standards of morality while building his international financial empire, and was facing bankruptcy — and potential criminal charges — after a stock market crash and other financial reverses ended the flow of new money into his operation. On the night of Jan. 16, he fell from his penthouse atop the Faulkner building in New York.

Did Faulkner jump? Or did Karen Andre, his former secretary and mistress, push him?

Rand wrote the story in response to the death of Swedish “;Match King”; Ivar Kreugar who was found dead, an apparent suicide, after his international financial empire estimated as having a paper value equivalent of $100 billion in contemporary buying power, was revealed to be little more than a Ponzi scheme. Rand saw the public response to Kreugar's death as being driven more by hostility to his “;greatness”; than anything else. The TAG playbill quotes Rand as describing Faulkner as “;what Kreugar ought to have been.”;

The play then is more about Rand's view of “;great figures and crucial fundamentals”; than legal procedure or the human cost of large-scale financial rip-offs. However, with Hawaii's fragile economy still in serious trouble following last year's financial meltdown, and confessed mega-swindler Bernard Madoff in the news, her vintage courtroom mystery has a timely hook to it.

               

     

 

'THE NIGHT OF JANUARY 16TH'

        » Where: The Actors Group Theatre, 1116 Smith St.
       

» When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 18

       

» Cost: $20 general admission ($10 on Thursdays)

       

» Info: 722-6941 or www.taghawaii.net

       

FAULKNER IS already dead when the play opens. Andre claims he committed suicide. Act I follows the standard trajectory of a murder trail as veteran actor Scott Robertson (District Attorney Flint) makes the case for the prosecution and real-life attorney Ron Heller (Attorney Stevens) handles the defense.

Heller's real-life wife, Rachel Funk Heller, presides as Judge Heath; other members of the court are bailiff Chad Williams, clerk Alan Picard and stenographer Brandi Firman.

The action becomes much less plausible after intermission.

Elizabeth Wolfe (Karen Andre) spends most of Act I sulking petulantly while the prosecution makes its case. She gets the opportunity to do much more than that after intermission when Andre is called to testify, defends Faulkner as a great man, and defiantly admits to doing things that would have scandalized most Americans in 1935.

Danielle Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak (Nancy Lee Faulkner) smolders beautifully as the dead man's wealthy widow; Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak's reactions make her worth keeping an eye on in the scenes where the widow is watching others testify. Richard Aadland, another local stage veteran, is likewise a good casting choice as her powerful father.

Most of the other witnesses are written and played as stock “;characters”; of one kind of another. Karen Valasek's portrayal of straight-laced Swedish housekeeper Magda Svenson was a hit with the audience on Saturday.

Although the attorneys' scripted duel is well-balanced, other aspects of the show are troubling. If the judge's rulings accurately represent what was permissible in a 1930s courtroom, it would be worth a paragraph or two in the playbill to explain that attorneys could do things then that no competent judge would allow today. It is difficult to enjoy the show while muttering “;Objection! Objection!”; to repeated examples of apparently inappropriate procedure.