BWW Review: AGATHA CHRISTIE'S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: Rogues on the Rails
Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express
Adapted by Ken Ludwig, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Scenic Design, Brynna Bloomfield; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Scott Clyve; Sound Design and Original Music, Dewey Dellay; Projection Design, Seaghan McKay; Dialect Coach, Bryn Austin; Wig and Make Up Design, Jason Allen; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Managers, L. Arkansas Light, Angela Harrington
Producing Artistic Director Emeritus Spiro Veloudos is in the director's chair for Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and stages Ken Ludwig's adaptation with distinct shadings of film noir and a who's who of Lyric Stage Company veterans (and a couple of newbies) on board to play the rogue's gallery of characters. If you already know whodunnit, the fresh take on telling the story will be worth the fare, and if you don't know who commits the dastardly deed, you're in for more than a few juicy surprises.
Agatha Christie provides the mystery and suspense, while Ludwig mines the humor inherent in the roster of passengers on the train. Remo Airaldi is a master character actor who knows his way around comedy. As Detective Hercule Poirot, his silent, bemused takes often draw laughs, even as his take charge self-assurance commands respect and attention, both from the audience and the other characters. Everyone plays it straight, but the actors find numerous ways to portray the existential preposterousness in their roles. When Samuel Ratchett (Davron Monroe), a notorious scoundrel, turns up dead in his compartment, no one is exempt from scrutiny, and, of course, they are all nonplussed to learn that Poirot considers them all suspects. However, there is no escaping his investigation, especially since the Orient Express is stuck in a snowbank and the perpetrator remains on the train. Talk about a captive audience.
Ludwig whittled down the list of suspects from twelve in the book to eight in the play. Monsieur Bouc's (Will McGarrahan) company owns the train, so he seems to more or less have a pass, but suspicion is cast on all the others for various reasons. One factor that seems especially peculiar to Poirot is the passengers' diverse accents and origin stories, causing him to wonder how they all ended up on this particular run. There's the Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Sarah deLima, delightful), and her Swedish companion, emotional Greta Ohlsson (Marge Dunn); Hector MacQueen (Michael John Ciszewski), companion to the deceased; brassy American housewife Helen Hubbard (Kerry A. Dowling); blustery Colonel Arbuthnot (Monroe) and his nervous paramour, Mary Debenham (Rosa Procaccino); mysterious Countess Andrenyi (Celeste Oliva), traveling with a medical bag, but without her husband; and Michel, the congenial Conductor (Scot Colford).
The talent assembled reminds me of the casting in the movie of the same name, or the old anthology television series, like "Love Boat," which featured A-listers putting aside their stardom and eschewing top billing to cohere into a unit for the purpose of telling the story. Veloudos has an ensemble of many stars who are toning it down to form a sparkly constellation in service of the production. Airaldi is front and center, but never oversells, and there are moments when someone else steps into the limelight. One of my favorite moments comes near the denouement, when the crime has been solved, and Dowling has a speech in which she implores Poirot to consider how he will handle reporting it to the police. After playing the loud, annoying American for most of the play, she transforms into someone more genteel, who speaks with gravitas, appealing to the detective's better angels.
Establishing the film noir element of the show from the start, Veloudos takes creative license (with stellar work by projection designer Seaghan McKay) with an opening cinematic sequence that introduces Daisy Armstrong (Josie Chapuran), a little girl who was kidnapped and murdered some years before the events on the train. That sets up the motive for the murder, but tells us nothing that will spoil the unfolding of the investigation. McKay's projections also augment Brynna Bloomfield's scenic design to suggest the sense of the train's motion, as well as falling snow. The exterior of the train unfolds to reveal a couple of adjacent compartments within, and Scott Clyve's lighting design effectively heightens the atmosphere. Gail Astrid Buckley's costume designs are outstanding and perfectly reflect the 30s time period, with wig and make up design by Jason Allen. Some of the music between scenes is dictated by the script, but sound designer Dewey Dellay seamlessly intersperses his original music.
Veloudos does a good job of layering the cinematic effects over the live show, allowing the audience to experience many of the classic film noir elements without sacrificing any of the theatrical three-dimensionality. The acting style employed is also somewhat cinematic and it works in the intimate confines of the Lyric Stage where facial expressions and body language can be seen from every seat in the house. The actors don't have to play "big," because they have the benefit of being seen in close-up, allowing for more nuance. If you like murder mysteries, live theater, and are something of a film buff, then get your ticket punched for a ride on the Orient Express.