This Week on Mystery Theatre:
The Case of the Rotating Portrait

May 17th, 2022

You study the girl in the portrait, her face askance, as if she is in the process of turning away from the viewer. Her skin is smooth, neck slender and adorned with a ribbon, head high and capped with a bonnet. You fix your gaze, study her until, in a blink, the portrait changes. The slender neck vanishes, and the ribbon that adorned it has become the thin-lipped grin of a face that now appears to be turning toward you. And the skin—no longer flawlessly smooth—appears wrinkled and creased.

In the blink of an eye, the young woman has become a crone, not because the painting itself has changed, but rather because your mind has deduced a new way of interpreting the details. And now, seeing the aged face hanging before you—you cannot imagine how you ever thought it could be anything else.

That’s from this week’s episode of Prime Stage Mystery Theatre’s “A Most Deadly Poison” (available May 19), in which the New Towne Players find themselves in a room decorated with two landscapes, a boar’s head trophy, and the bistable image of a face that may be either turning away or toward the viewer–it’s all a matter of perspective.

The image has a long history, first appearing on a German postcard in 1888. The artist was uncredited, and the image was soon copied by illustrators in France (above), Spain (at right) and the United States (below left).

It’s interesting how some of these anonymous artists took liberties with the original, with the French illustrator adding hands and a book and the Spanish artist giving the woman curly hair and a shawl. But it wasn’t until 1915 that British cartoonist W. E. Hill signed the work, passing it off as his own creation—or at least his own interpretation—in the November 6, 1915, issue of Puck, a popular humor magazine. (Hill’s illustration appears at the bottom of this post, alongside the 1888 original.)

Hill gives the woman her most complete make-over by adding an elaborate feathered hat and a fur coat, and his is the version that most people know. As a result, W. E. Hill is often cited as the work’s original artist.

Since then, new iterations have continued to appear, with cartoonist Ali Solomon giving the old woman a lit cigarette (below right) in a recent issue of The New Yorker Magazine. Thus, it’s not surprising that the second-person protagonist of “A Most Deadly Poison” thinks the woman looks familiar or that Joey the Intern reports seeing her on the Internet.

Interestingly, as you will notice in Act 3 of “A Most Deadly Poison” (available here on May 19), younger people tend to see the young woman first, whereas old folks see the crone. You can read more about that phenomenon in a recent Newsweek article by clicking here.

All of this brings us to the puzzle featured in Act III of “A Most Deadly Poison,” in which the New Towne Players find themselves at a dinner table set for a dozen strangers. The place card names are an odd mix. Some of the names have prefix titles (Ms. Ambertin, Mr. E. Thetas Hustle, Signora Titan, Dr. Werner). Two have middle initials (Alice C. Comp, Sam D. Winter). The rest are simply first and last names (Stew Ains, Randy Best, Art Beto, Sam Stein, Tim Vetchi, and Stan Wise). Naturally, since the puzzle addressed in Acts I and II centers on scrambled messages, the New Towne Players assume the names are anagrams.

And it seems as if the letters in eight of the names do in fact rearrange to spell roles that might be featured in a mystery story (the victim, the master sleuth, a witness, and so on). But four of the names are outliers, and one of them–printed on the place card for Ms. Ambertin–is positioned directly in front of the portrait of the woman with the turning face. Is there a connection?

Is it possible that a portrait capable of facing two different directions provides the clue needed to successfully rearrange the letters in Ms. Ambertin’s name?

That’s where we’ll leave things at the end of Act III, and it’s where the story will pick up when Act IV drops on May 26.

<<<The uncredited original from 1888 beside the W. E. Hill version from Puck Magazine, 6 Nov. 1915. 

If you have any thoughts as to how the letters in Ms. Ambertin’s name might be rearranged to link her to a murder plot, you can let us know with a note submitted via or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post. As with many mysteries, the solution will seem obvious once you know what it is.

That’s it for today. I hope to have another Mystery Theatre update soon. For now, you can listen (or relisten) to the current episode and all past installments with your favorite podcast app or by simply going to the Prime Stage Mystery Theatre directory. Click the link. I’ll meet you there!

  1. This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022 at 9:21 am and is filed under 21st-Century Scop. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.

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