Thou Shalt Not - Production by Thinkery & Verse
On September 16, 1922, the bodies of an Episcopal priest, Edward Wheeler Hall and a member of his choir, Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, were discovered in a field near the New Brunswick-Franklin Township border. The bloody, butchered bodies obviously had been staged in the positions in which they were found. Torn love letters lay at the feet of the victims, as well as Hall’s business card. The murders of the minister and the choir singer, fueled the already swirling gossip about their love affair. Unfortunately, the nearly century old case has never been solved and remains as New Brunswick’s most intriguing cold case.
The beautiful and historic Church of St. John the Apostle, located at 189 George Street in New Brunswick, was the site of an enthralling, new theatrical production, Thou Shalt Not, performed by a repertory company called Thinkery & Verse. The choice of venue for the production of Thou Shalt Not is relevant to this gripping production, in that it was performed in the church where Edward Hall delivered weekly sermons to his congregants. Throughout the drama, the audience could sense the phantom presence of Hall and Mills, as the actors told of their unfortunate affair and monstrous murders.
The church space added an eerie element as the performers and audience moved back and forth between the sanctuary and hall spaces. The opening of the play began in the large assembly hall where the actors in costumes of the period, milled about, engaging in conversation with the audience. One actor asked me where I was from and if I knew anything about the famous case.
“As a matter of fact,” I replied, “my father was born in New Brunswick in 1921. He was the one who gave me the William Kunstler book entitled The Minister and the Choir Singer, which is about the murders. My Dad told me that he grew up hearing about the case every now and then since he lived in New Brunswick.”
Aside from talking to the visitors, several performers were hawking popcorn, candy, and beverages. This was actually the Prologue of the production, and the mingling of audience and performers created an engaging, while curious atmosphere. It was extraordinary beginning to the piece which became more intense as the play continued.
The playwrights of Thou Shalt Not, Karen Alvarado, John M. Meyer, Tom Byrne, and Lou Bullock told the story from the point of view of Charlotte Mills, the daughter of the murdered Eleanor Mills. The press at that time fed on sensational stories, such as the Hall-Mills case, and interviewed Charlotte for details about her mother. Although Charlotte seemed to enjoy her notoriety, even referring to herself as a flapper to make herself seem more interesting to the press, the playwrights delved into what could have been plaguing Charlotte’s troubled mind as the years slipped by with no satisfactory solution to the case.
The play depicts Charlotte’s struggle throughout the years as to “Whom could have done this?” The wife of Edward Hall, Frances Hall, a well-known, wealthy socialite and her peculiar and somewhat simple brother, Willie Stevens, as well as their older brother, Henry Stevens, stood trial for the crime. Another cousin, Henry Carpenter was indicted, but never stood trial. Ultimately, Frances and her brothers were acquitted. No one else ever has been charged with the crime, though there were many suspects in the case. Now, 100 years after the fact, it is unlikely that the crime will ever be solved.
Thou Shalt Not crescendos to its climax where the drama poses several possible scenarios as the solution to “whodunit.” The actors brought passion to each of the possible solutions, and ultimately the drama presented the one solution that satisfactorily answers the haunted Charlotte, as well as the audience.
The performers were vibrant onstage, and considering that the ensemble cast played several roles in the piece, delivered the dialogue with intensity. Celine Dirkes played Charlotte Mills, Kaitlin Ormerod took the role of Charlotte Mills. Ania Upstill gave a great performance as the snooty Frances Hall, and Dan Robertson was chilling when he stood at the very pulpit that at one time the actual minister, Edward Hall, had delivered sermons a century ago.
The company of Thinkery & Verse is a partnership between Karen Alvarado and John M. Meyer. They regularly produce and perform in New York City, Austin Texas, and New Jersey. According to company founder, John M. Meyer, he and partner Karen Alvarado wanted to produce work with a longer rehearsal timeline, and a close reading of the classics while building new plays. To create Thou Shalt Not, for example, the writers sampled from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was published, ironically, the same year in which the Hall-Mills murder took place.
As they did in this production, the number of actors was reduced in order to stimulate the imaginations of the audience, which worked well. Alvarado and Meyer developed Thinkery & Verse because they were frustrated with the way many theatre artist use “naturalism” as an excuse to avoid providing opportunities to artists from underrepresented groups.
Thinkery & Verse enjoyed working with the Church of St. John, and were delighted that the church members were amenable to the company taking risks with the church’s long history and reputation.
Although Thou Shalt Not has finished its limited run in New Brunswick this fall, it will return to the Church of St. John in May 2020. Tickets will be released soon for that production and I would encourage those of you who love a wonderful night of fine theatre, to visit the website of Thinkery & Verse where you can find their upcoming productions and purchase tickets. Visit https://thinkery-andverse.weebly.com/