BWW Review: THE MOUSETRAP at Court Theatre a Fresh Take on Agatha Christie's Record-breaking Mystery

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BWW Review: THE MOUSETRAP at Court Theatre a Fresh Take on Agatha Christie's Record-breaking Mystery

How do you put a new spin on the world's longest-running play? At Court Theatre, director Sean Graney takes on this challenge with Agatha Christie's classic murder mystery, THE MOUSETRAP. Running continuously in London's West End since 1952, the original production currently clocks in at over 28,000 performances--certainly a jewel in the crown of one of the world's most successful mystery writers. While the London production has only updated its set design twice since its premiere, here in Chicago, Graney and team breathe fresh life into the popular mystery with fascinating designs, hilarious character actors and an honest approach to Christie's insightful exploration of human nature.

THE MOUSETRAP's plot structure follows a classic Christie trope, used in many of her most famous plays and novels, including AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. A group of strangers, gathered in a remote location, find themselves cut off from the outside world by inclement weather and/or malicious human agency. A murder occurs, and the culprit must be identified from the limited pool of suspects before another victim is claimed.

Monkswell Manor provides THE MOUSETRAP's requisite isolated setting. Newly refurbished and opened as a guesthouse by Mollie and Giles Ralston (Kate Fry and Allen Gilmore), the young couple has clearly tried to modernize the country estate and add some cheer with lively patterned furniture and a stylishly striped floor. Nevertheless, the country estate retains the gloomy atmosphere of its ancient monastic origins. Arnel Sancianco's set design centers on a fireplace and towering stone chimney, backed by lofty walls and tall vertical windows. Claire Chrzan's textured, shadowy lighting complements Sancianco's palette of black, greys and deep purples and greens to create an underlying ominous tone. In a macabre touch that hints at this production's self-aware humor, one chair features a pattern of skulls.

With Monkswell Manor open for business, the Ralstons' first paying guests arrive just as a blizzard threatens to snow them all in. In typical Christie fashion, this group is full of colorful characters--literally as well as figuratively, thanks to Alison Siple's costumes. Citing the board game CLUE as inspiration, Siple gives each character a distinct color and/or pattern, many of them loud, bright or boldly mismatched. Though her costumes nod to period fashions of the post-WWII setting, they offer a refreshing novelty compared to what Siple calls the "brown and tweed" of most productions.

As for the guests themselves... Alex Goodrich, always an exceptional character actor, is in fine form as aspiring architect Christopher Wren (get the joke?), a lanky bundle of nervous energy sporting a riot of orange patterns, large black-framed glasses and an untamable head of curls. In yellow and black animal prints and horn-rims, Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann soon establishes her character as everyone's favorite guest to hate--Mrs. Boyle, an entitled, judgmental elderly woman. One unexpected guest, Mr. Paravicini (David Cerda), clad in rich purple fabrics and flamboyant furs, makes a grand entrance after his Rolls Royce is stranded in the snow. Rounding out the group are Major Metcalf (Lyonel Reneau), a retired army officer, and Miss Casewell (Tina Muñoz Pandya), a no-nonsense young Englishwoman who lives abroad.

Enter Detective Sergeant Trotter (Erik Hellman), a policeman who treks through the blizzard to Monkswell Manor--on skis, no less--after a hot tip in a murder investigation. Police are searching for a nondescript man who killed an ex-convict woman in London earlier that day. Thought to be an incident of revenge for a horrendous incident of child abuse that occurred near Monkswell Manor a decade before, evidence suggests the murderer's next victim(s) may be at the manor now. Can Trotter convince this group of strangers to tell him the truth about their pasts in time for him to protect them from the psychopath at large?

The trouble is, you can never really know what a person is like or what they are thinking, as Christopher Wren astutely notes in an early scene. Christie, a perceptive observer of human nature, plays with this tension throughout Trotter's investigation as her characters spiral into paranoia, accusations and deceit. Each of the guests has something to hide, and even the Ralstons, a loving couple approaching their first anniversary, begin to suspect each other. Mollie Ralston likens the experience to a nightmare in which the people you think you know turn out to be strangers. "Perhaps," she fearfully speculates, "you can't trust anybody. Perhaps everybody's a stranger."

As the suspense builds, Graney and his cast allow plenty of space for humor. Christie's flair for characterization offers rich material for comedic actors; in particular, Goodrich, Cerda and Hoerdemann capitalize on their characters' eccentricities for laughs. Though the Ralstons are ordinary people, Fry and Gilmore share a strong rapport and make the most of the subtle domestic humor in Christie's script. Also, the production sometimes verges on poking fun of classic murder mystery devices--for example, the piercing scream that brings Act I down into a blackout is delivered with exaggerated melodramatic effect.

In order to avoid spoilers, it's best to leave the Ralstons and their guests here. Clever armchair detectives may work out the ending as early as intermission (my plus-one did), but even those who already know "whodunit" (as I did, having seen the London production) should thoroughly enjoy Graney's staging at Court Theatre. The designs are fresh, the humor abundant, the characters memorable and the mystery a treat from "Queen" Agatha Christie.

THE MOUSETRAP runs through February 16 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637. Tickets are $37.50 - $84 and are available at 773.753.4472 or www.CourtTheatre.org.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Review by Emily McClanathan



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