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Originally published Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Left hanging by Dickens' 'Edwin Drood'? 2 takes coming our way

Charles Dickens' literary whodunit, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," was never finished. Dickens fans have two chances in April to imagine how it could end: a Cornish College of the Arts production and a BBC-made drama on public television.

Seattle Times theater critic

PREVIEW

'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

• On stage: Tuesday-Saturday, Cornish College of the Arts production at Intiman Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., Seattle; $5-$15 (www.cornish.edu).

• On TV: 9 p.m. April 15, KCTS Channel 9

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In the summer of 1870, many Victorian Londoners who loved a good yarn were engrossed in the latest serialized novel by Charles Dickens, the most popular and esteemed fiction writer of his day.

Like all of Dickens' many novels, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was published in installments. It was a tumultuous tale of drug-addled passion, of murky doings in a cathedral, of the suspicious disappearance of a young gentleman.

Readers were well into it when, on June 8, 1870, the ailing 58-year old Dickens suffered a stroke. He had spent the day before working on a new chapter of "Edwin Drood," but did not complete the book before his death on June 9. His grieving readers were left hanging.

Since then, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" has been a mystery in itself. There have been numerous attempts by writers to craft a satisfying ending for the tale's gallery of intriguing characters — including a finale allegedly "ghostwritten" by Dickens himself.

On the occasion of the bicentenary of Dickens' birth, two takes on "Edwin Drood" are coming our way: A Broadway musical based on the story will be presented at Intiman Theatre by Cornish College of the Arts this week. And next weekend the PBS series "Masterpiece Classic" is broadcasting a recent BBC film of the novel. (It follows a new, two-part version of Dickens' "Great Expectations.")

The chief questions to be resolved for any Dickens adapter: What happened to the missing title character, the young dandy Edwin? Was he killed? If so, by whom? And why?

Did Edwin's opium-smoking choirmaster uncle, John Jasper, kill his nephew in a jealous rage over Edwin's long-betrothed Rosa Bud? Or was someone else offed, by a different character?

The Interactive 'Drood'

Dickens left no sketches or notes for the ending for his novel, which is considered one of the first literary murder mysteries. But a friend and one of the author's sons reported he discussed the plot with them, and informed them individually that Edwin was indeed kaput, and Jasper had slain him.

But there's no way to verify that in a text that trailed off with no proof of murder — not even a corpse.

Rather than go with the obvious, or settle on a single conclusion, writer-composer Rupert Holmes gave a multiple-choice finale for his Tony Award-honored 1985 musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

"The audience votes on several key issues every evening to conclude the story. This means that there are [many different] ways each performance can end," says Richard Gray, who is codirecting the Cornish staging with Kathryn van Meter.

The show-within-a-show takes place in a Victorian-era music hall, where a troupe of players enact the story in scenes and songs. The jolly English traditions of musical hall and pantomime (with words) made for a far more upbeat offering than the darker-hued novel.

The show is not typically "Dickensian," as Holmes told the press. "It's light and fun and entertaining. But I hope — and think — Dickens would have enjoyed it."

And what would he have made of the ending? Make that "endings."

"The musical is about choices, the choices we make and how they affect us," suggests Gray. "The audience throughout the evening is asked to take care in making their decisions, admonished for any quick conclusions."

Given all the variables, Gray estimates there are more than 100 possible endings when all the audience decisions are tallied up at the finale.

Which provides a big challenge for the student cast. To be ready for any outcome, Gray notes, "a great deal of improvisation and fearlessness ... is essential. Cornish breeds fearless actors, so I knew this was a perfect piece for them to work on."

The brooding 'Drood'

The TV version on "Masterpiece Classic" settles on a single ending. And don't worry — it won't be revealed here.

But it is the moody Gothic ambience of the BBC production that contrasts most starkly with the playful musical.

Filled with dark shadows, thunderstorms, graveyard and crypt rambles and wild opium dreams, it focuses on the figure of Jasper (played with anguished intensity by Matthew Rhys). He is a man tormented by competing desires to assist his relation Edwin (played with twitty relish by Freddie Fox), and to possess Edwin's lovely, wary fiancée Rosa (Tamzin Merchant).

Jasper becomes the prime suspect after Edwin vanishes and is presumed dead, but he isn't the only one. Just the craziest and creepiest.

The denouement chosen by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes won't please every Dickens aficionado. As she told BBC News, "It's difficult enough putting novels on the telly when you have to leave a lot out and you annoy a lot of the fans. Now, here was I proposing not only to leave a lot out, but to put a lot in."

Yes, Dickens' death deprived more than a century of readers of the writer's definitive finale. But on the other hand, the open-ended "Mystery of Edwin Drood" makes us all his collaborators.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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