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What has Sandy Robbins accomplished in two decades at UD? Our state has a theatre group equal to The Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Arena Stage in DC and the McCarter Stage in Princeton, among others; venues renown as the greatest of American performance stages.

Let's put it this way. Organizations - especially great sports franchises - speak of culture and stability and honesty. Those attributes come from strong and focused leadership whose mission is adamantine.

Since opening curtain in 2008, the REP Acting Company has retained several of those in this current production 11 years later: Hector McQueen (Michael Gotch), Monsieur Bouc (Stephen Pelinski), Colonel Arbuthnot (Mic Matarrese), Kathleen Pirkl Tague, Elizabeth Heflin and Steve Tague.

My personal favorites: Kotch in HAMLET (2012), where he made Shakespeare so easily accessible to understand. Pelinski in MOCKINGBIRD (2015), where it took me 5 minutes after curtain to collect my emotions. Matarrese in FAUST (2013, a mephistopelian tour de force. Pirkl Tague in WIT (2013), a breathtaking portrayal and a shock to the audience seconds before final curtain. Heflin in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, in which I received a rapid change of testosterone level while not so calmly sitting in my seat. Steve Tague, OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD (2011), an eye-opening examination of man's inhumanity.

Two months ago, Robbins was awarded the prestigious John Houseman Award in NYC. The award "honors individuals who have extended the legacy of The Acting Company founder John Houseman's profound commitment to the development of American classical actors and cultivation of a new audience for the theatre," the famed repertory company said in announcing Robbins' selection. Previous Houseman Award recipients include actors Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline and legendary theatrical producer Joseph Papp, among many other respected and influential artists.

Now Delaware has its own Houseman Award recipient.

Coincidentally, from Princeton's McCarter, comes REP's current blockbuster, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, a new and comedic version written by Ken Ludwig. (This season Candlelight Theatre in Arden staged a hysterical production of Ludwig's LEND ME A TENOR). My point is this. REP's live show is not like any MURDER/ORIENT you had previously seen. Ludwig is a comedic genius. Fasten seat belts for a great train ride. It's already been extended prior to its opening last weekend, so you know where I am going with this.

REP's sets and costuming have been unfailingly jaw dropping. Many Tony award winners have appeared in the program book. But the creative crew of this show surpassed these already Olympian goalposts. Costumes by Fabio Toblini were stunning, especially for Princess Dragomiroff (Elizabeth Heflin, looking more the Dowager Queen than the Princess), Countess Andrenyi (Robyn Cohen) and Helen Hubbard (Kathleen Pirkl Tague). The latter's character reminded me of a mélange of Ethel Merman in CALL ME MADAM and Debby Reynolds in UNSINKABLE Molly Brown)!

The Orient Express was real. It was the most famous train on earth, a veritable palace on wheels; synonymous with opulence and luxury. It was always in the headlines to the glamourous passengers; popes and potentates, princes and presidents. Christie had made several trips from Istanbul to Paris. In 1929 it was stranded for 9 days in a snowdrift. While no one was murdered, the thought inspired a million paperbacks!

Scenic Designer Linda Buchanan recreated this legendary lavishness with not one but two compartments, the engineering logistics of sliding one on stage while sliding the other off was a monumental feat unto itself. Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger was beautifully effective, framing the characters in melodramatic tableaus requisite to the murder, mystery and mayhem in this classic whodunit. Original music by Lindsey Jones provided a similar ebb and flow of frivolity and tension.

Agatha Christie's experiences during WWI working with Belgian refugees inspired the creation of her most iconic character, Hercule Poirot. His character was so popular his crime busting adventures appeared in 26 more novels and 57 short stories. Lee Ernst as Poirot captures the savoir-faire, the sophistication and the unrelenting curiosity of those who have come before him, including Charles Laughton, Albert Finney and Kenneth Branagh (yes, he of the clownish moustache)

Through December 8

UD REP Ensemble 302.831.2201

Next Up: STARTER PISTOL by REP actor Michael Gotch. Jan 16 - Feb 2

This is playwright Gotch's second show at REP. STARTER PISTOL won the Ashland New Play Festival award this year.

Short video interview with Ken Ludwig on the McCarter Theatre production.

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From This Author Greer Firestone