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BWW Interview: Joel Harris Fenster of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Curtain Call

A thrilling ride as Murder on the Orient Express pulls into Stamford

BWW Interview: Joel Harris Fenster of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at Curtain Call

Even decades after her death, Agatha Christie remains the queen of mysteries. You could curl up in front of the fireplace with one of her 66 novels, or you can brave the cold and see Ken Ludwig's Murder on the Orient Express at Curtain Call's Dressing Room Theatre.

The play is directed by Joel Harris Fenster, who fell in love with the 1974 version of the movie, which he saw on HBO. "It really affected me and started my love for mysteries and Agatha Christie," he says. He ended up directing stage adaptations of Christie's And Then There Were None, The Unexpected Guest, Go Back for Murder, Spider's Web, and Black Coffee at Curtain Call, the Westport Community Theatre, the Carriage House Arts Center, and the Darien Players. "Black Coffee," he notes, "is the only play Agatha Christie wrote that features Hercule Poirot. She wrote him out of other novels she adapted for the stage herself. Murder on the Orient Express is the first play in a long time where Poirot has appeared."

Did Fenster pitch the show to Lou Ursone, Executive Director of Curtain Call?" Sort of," he says. "Lou had asked me about directing Witness for the Prosecution. I mentioned Murder on the Orient Express as a piece I was more interested in. He couldn't get the rights at the time...but things changed and here we are."

Are the actors going to do accents in this play? Fenster says, "Of course. You can't do an Agatha Christie mystery without the actors doing their best accents from all over the European continent. We have Belgians, Russians, Hungarians, Scots, Brits, Swedes, French, Middle Eastern, and, of course, Americans. But here's the kicker. The accents are excellent. Around the time that Fenster directed The Unexpected Guest for Curtain Call, the Long Wharf Theatre presented Kathleen Turner's The Killing of Sister George. Audience members complained that they couldn't understand the accents in Sister George, including this critic. There was no such problem with Fenster's cast.

The cast includes mostly Curtain Call veterans and Eric Marquez (Bouc) and Sally Rose Zuckert (Mary), who are making their Curtain Call debuts. Phil Garfinkle stars as Poirot. Ann Alford plays Mrs. Hubbard, Tom Petrone portrays Ratchett, Jim Muthersbaugh plays both Michele and the Head Waiter, and Mat Young is Arbuthnot. Rounding out the cast are Maggie Haber as the Countess, Gail Yudain as the Princess, Celine Montaudy as Greta, and Aaron Newcome as MacQueen.

In addition to Fenster, the production team includes set design by Peter Barbieri, Jr, lighting design by Jamie LaJoie, costumes by Robin Mazzola, stage management by Tori Ready and Kevin Tangney.

This has a sizable cast, especially since the show will be presented in the smaller of Curtain Call's two theatres. The size of the cast differs from each of the two film productions. What are the challenges of working with a lot of actors and what does Fenster do to make it seem so easy? "Eleven actors in the Dressing Room Theater is a walk in the park," he maintains. "I've directed larger casts on smaller stages."

Fenster has also directed Ludwig's The Hound of The Baskervilles. Does he direct non-mysteries, too?

"Yes," he says. "Actually, Baskerville was more comedy than mystery since it was five actors, one playing Holmes, one playing Watson, and three others playing about 30 other characters. But I have directed dramas (The Heiress), comedies (Noises Off, Sly Fox), Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), and musicals (Pippin, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, City of Angels, and Chess).

Has he written any plays or mysteries? "Not since college," he admits, "but I never know what I might do next and there are stories brewing in my head."

What do you think is Agatha Christie's biggest appeal and why do you think her works remain so popular? He says, "I think everyone loves a good mystery. Audiences love to be kept on their toes while they try and stay one step ahead of the story. Dame Agatha is the queen of the genre. She wrote many classics that have twists and turns that keep audiences/readers guessing until the very end. And even then, there are always surprises. She is still popular because her works are timeless, even though they are of a time. The fact that the newer Kenneth Branagh film version of Murder on the Orient Express was still set as period piece, yet added some more diversity to its cast, and was successful enough to warrant a sequel (Death on the Nile which opens in theaters the weekend after we close our show) says that there is still life left in these classics. The fact that community theaters all over the world return to Christie's works and get packed houses (at least pre-COVID), shows that audiences will show up time and time again to try and see if they can get ahead of the game that Dame Agatha is playing...

Get your tickets for Murder on the Orient Express by calling 203-461-6358 or visiting The production opens Thursday, January 20 and runs through Sunday, February 6. Performances will be held Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 p.m., from January 20 to February 6. The Dressing Room Theatre is located at The Sterling Farms Theatre Complex, 1349 Newfield Avenue, Stamford, CT. Doors open one half hour before show time. Tickets are $35 for adults, $25 for senior citizens and $20 for children under 21. There are discounted Flex Pass subscriptions which offer savings of 25% and more.)

Curtain Call has conformed to all the COVID safety guidelines. Please review the COVID policy on the home page and note that the rehearsal pictures show the cast wearing masks.

Those who have yet to see a Curtain Call production should know that it is Stamford's longest-running and only nonprofit theatre company. There are year-round productions in The Kweskin Theatre and The Dressing Room Theatre, located on the beautiful campus of Sterling Farms in Stamford. There are a minimum of 12 full-scale productions, sometimes at both theatres, plus Shakespeare on the Green each summer, and other special events such as a Summer Youth Program, interactive murder mysteries, concerts, and comedy nights. Curtain Call also has a acting classes for kids. It was voted Fairfield County's Best Local Theatre Group ten years running in the Annual Readers' Poll of Fairfield County Weekly and has received numerous BEST OF awards from Stamford Magazine and StamfordPlus magazine. It received The Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2011 and the ACE Award for Excellence in Arts & Culture from the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County in 2016.

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