Sitting in one of the rows of seats in the Earl R. Brown auditorium, Aponi Johnson has a lot on her mind. For months, a team of 15 or so actors and crew members have been working on the play of her choosing: The Mysterious Affair at the Styles. With just a week until opening night, Johnson is inspecting every bit of the show – from the actor’s performances, to the stage, to the props – through the lens of someone who is both stage manager and director.
This play marks both Aponi Johnson’s directorial debut and the end of her time as Production Guild President. She’s graduating in April.
Set in the summer of 1917, in the middle of WWI, the show starts with Captain Arthur Hastings returning from battle to recuperate at Styles Court. Soon after his arrival, the lady of the house mysteriously dies and her murderer could be anyone: her new husband, her ne’er-do-well son, the female groundskeeper, even the local toxicologist. Enter Hercule Poirot, a Belgian refugee and detective, along with his side-kick, who spend the next hour deducing who the killer is.
“The detective is such an interesting character, because he’s so intelligent and knows who the killer is the whole time,” Johnson said. “It’s similar to Sherlock and Watson, and our detective lets his Watson develop his own ideas for a bit and then keeps taking them away from him, saying clearly it couldn’t be that, because of this clue or that reason. He doesn’t let on who did it until the very end.”
While the Production Guild predominantly does farces like this (in recent years, performances have included plays about nuns making wine on the sly and kooky neighbors trapped together during a storm), The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the first murder-mystery in a while.
Johnson’s interest in theater stems from the history classes that were part of her homeschool curriculum in New York. The first semester students would focus on one time period – the Civil War, the Chinese opium war – and the second semester students would put on lengthy plays encompassing what they’d learned. Johnson credits that experience for getting her out of her shell and getting her interested in acting. Though she took a two-year hiatus from theater when her family moved to a small village in the Bristol Bay area for her father’s new teaching gig, she didn’t stop thinking about theater. During her first semester at APU she joined the Production Guild and began acting in plays. She played a drunk elderly neighbor, a wannabe nun who falls in love with the gardener, and a washed-up actress before acting as stage manager last semester and both stage manager and director this semester.
“Acting is so, so different from directing and managing,” Johnson said. “There are so many more moving pieces.”
Her many duties aren’t just picking the play, casting actors and giving critiques – she’s also responsible for gathering props, building the set, recruiting a crew, scheduling, advertising, submitting paperwork, meeting with the club advisor weekly, and, because this is her senior project, writing weekly updates for her faculty advisor. If that weren’t enough, she’s also developing a handbook for the club to use in the future, to help future presidents and directors navigate the waters of budget forms and audition protocol.
Though of all that, Johnson said the hardest part has been acquiring the props. Because it’s a mystery, the play calls upon very specific props – they could be important clues that determine who the villain is. It’s worth it for her, though. After a minimalist set last semester, she was eager to create a set that was very involved.
“I want the audience to walk in and feel like they’re there, too,” Johnson said.
The Mysterious Affair at the Styles will hit the stage next Friday and Saturday night at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.