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BWW Reviews: The Alley's THE HOLLOW is Engaging and Engrossing Entertainment

Tradition is often a beautiful thing, especially when it invites Houstonians and tourists alike out of the summer heat and into the splendors of air conditioning. Mix in delightful, sometimes even frightfully chilling, entertainment, and you've got the recipe for the Alley Theatre's annual ExxonMobil Summer Chills series. This summer's offering is Agatha Christie's ever-suspenseful and surprisingly humorous THE HOLLOW, which is the 22nd Agatha Christie show the Alley has produced in their 66-year history.

For those familiar with Agatha Christie's novel THE HOLLOW, the biggest surprise in the show is the complete exclusion of her most famous detective, Hercule Poirot. She notoriously felt he had ruined the novel by completely jarring the atmosphere she had created, so in writing the play she completely excised him from the plot. However, all the tropes of the "country house mystery" are kept perfectly intact. The play is set in the garden room of Sir Henry Angkatell's house, The Hollow, about 18 miles from London. Throughout the first act, the cast arrives for a weekend in the country. With each arrival, the audience is masterfully exposed to each character's individual secrets and burdens, setting the stage for abounding motives and deeply resonant motifs of anguish, guilt, loss, and affecting sadness. The dastardly murder occurs in the heart of the second act, once everyone is fully established. Both the remainder of the second act and the entirety of the third act entail the fascinating hunt for clues, pinpointing the correct motive for murder, and the anticipated reveal of the murderer.

Gregory Boyd's direction flawlessly captures the moody atmosphere and suspense of the play, which is what audiences have come to expect from these annual summer offerings. Yet, what I found most impressive was the way that Agatha Christie wrote humor into the play and how mirthfully Gregory Boyd coached his cast to express it. Agatha Christie is renown for her cerebral mysteries that require actual sleuthing to adequately solve, but THE HOLLOW has so much more to offer. The characters she creates in this play are vibrantly alive, extraordinarily multifaceted, and each has his or her own exquisite vulnerabilities and moral complications. The much appreciated and sparkling humor keeps the material from becoming too heavy to handle. Thus, THE HOLLOW offered more chuckles and guffaws than I expected, but I was simply astonished by how Gregory Boyd and his cast served it more as a fine, delicate wine as opposed to letting it arrive overdone in a sugary cloud of confectionary spectacle.

Josie de Guzman is simply superb as the show stealing bumbling, cute, and entirely dotty Lady Angkatell. Her amusingly absurd recitation of facts and doddering mannerisms keep the audience glued to her pristine performance as we giddily anticipate the next unconventional and often humorous line to escape her lips.

Gerda Cristow, phenomenally crafted and played by Melissa Pritchett, is remarkably affable and devoted to her husband. The whole situation at The Hollow disturbs and confuses her. Once the murder occurs, she loses her levelheaded sensibility. As she reels from the devious deed, she becomes one of the most relatable and empathetic characters in the production.

Mark Shanahan's John Cristow, M.D. is contemptuously vile and absolutely revolting. Mark Shanahan expertly fills the audience with disgust because of his immaculately played egocentric, arrogant, and brash behaviors. It is a true but delightfully invigorating rarity for an actor to craft a villain that is so repulsive that the audience is titillated by how much they physically loathe and detest the fictional human being strutting on the stage before them.

Played to perfection, Emily Neves' Midge Harvey is extremely well mannered and put together. Lacking the abundance of wealth that graces the other members of her family, she clings to her career in a dress shop. This sometimes makes her appear shrewd and utterly fastidious. Yet, Emily Neves crafts the character with a lot of heart too.

As Edward Angkatell, Jay Sullivan is mild mannered and strikingly rigid. The character feels as if he has not changed, and Jay Sullivan skillfully creates a persona who truly feels and emotes as if he is incapable of changing. On top of this, he deftly layers romantic affectations for a couple of the characters.

Henrietta Angkatell, magnificently portrayed by Elizabeth Bunch, is purposefully obtuse and hard to read. Elizabeth Bunch fascinatingly creates a character that fluctuates between poised graciousness and being bitterly hard. The only flaw in the performance is that her attempted British accent sounds more like the Transatlantic accent/Mid-Atlantic English of films from the 1930s and 1940s.

Todd Waite is sublimely hysterical as the nosy butler, Gudgeon. Every time he pops into a scene, his performance is a welcomed treat. Last night's audience was most receptive to this amiable but quirky character, and immediately stood and cheered when we appeared for his bow during curtain call.

James Black's Sir Henry Angkatell, K.C.B. is wonderfully witty. James Blacke imbues him with charismatic charm and tangible warmth. The character is mild and likable the entire play, always bringing at least a smile to that faces of the audience.

As film star Veronica Craye, Laura E. Campbell excels at be a dazzling vivacious vixen. Her character is resplendently lascivious, bold, and sexy, and she knows it. She blatantly uses her eye-catching femininity to get what she desires, and has no remorse for it.

Lee Sellars creates a subtly piquant and exceptionally intelligent character with his Inspector Colquhoun, C.I.D. As he perceptively collects important evidence and facts, all of which are present for the audience to take in as well, he mentally and verbally tinkers with who did it and why. He allows the audience to see his thought process and use his logic to bolster their own.

Detective Sergeant Penny is dexterously portrayed by David Matranga. He humorously uses his masculinity to woo and sway the female household servants to get information.

Diandra Lagngenbach's Doris, a maid for the Angkatells and fan of Veronica Craye, is comedic in her simplicity.

Scenic Design by Linda Buchanan is gorgeous. The design is elaborately detailed and pristinely decorated. It effortlessly captures the look and feel of a garden room in one of England's large manors. My favorite element is that it is warm and inviting. The woods chosen have light stains. The furniture is appears comfortable and is lightly colored. This set is not the dark and shadowy behemoth we have come to expect with murder mysteries; however, under the proper lighting it can be eerily intimidating.

Costume Design by Tricia Barsamian is astoundingly beautiful. Each piece is elegantly tailored to the actor who wears it and his or her character's persona. Patterns and bright colors are primarily used, showing us that most of these characters are cheerfully removed from the dangers of the world, making the dubious murder a shocking surprise for the entire ensemble.

Michael Lincoln's Light Design glows with a delicate joy for large portions of the play. The rudimentary and required shadows and darkness are present for Act II, Scene 2 and much of Act III. However, because these characters themselves are so convivial and lighthearted, the design reflects that tonality as often as possible.

Sound Design by Jill BC Du Boff is sadly distracting at times. The music that underscores a few moments and transitions is played at flawless levels and does not distract from the production. Yet, the floor microphones seemed exceptionally sensitive at last night's performance. There were times when everything was marvelously mixed, but for much of Act I and at random intervals in Acts II and III, it was obvious and exceedingly apparent that they were being used to amplify the human voice. This, in effect, created a noticeable change in volume that was not suitable for the production.

The Alley Theatre's annual summer treat does not disappoint. It jovially plays with our notions and expectations of the typical murder mystery, all the while keeping audiences riveted and attending to the production. The Alley Theatre's production of Agatha Christie's THE HOLLOW is engaging and engrossing entertainment perfectly suited for escaping the heat and doldrums of summer.

Agatha Christie's THE HOLLOW run on the Alley Theatre's Hubbard Stage through August 4, 2013. For more information and tickets, please visit or call (713) 220 - 5700.

All photos by Jann Whaley. Courtesy of the Alley Theatre.

The company in the Alley Theatre's production of Agatha Christie's THE HOLLOW.

The company in the Alley Theatre's production of Agatha Christie's THE HOLLOW.

(Left to Right) Emily Neves as Midge Harvey, Josie de Guzman as Lady Angkatell and James Black as Sir Henry Angkatell.

(Left to Right) Josie de Guzman as Lady Angkatell and Emily Neves as Midge Harvey.

(Left to Right) Mark Shanahan as Dr. John Cristow and Laura E. Campbell as Veronica Craye.

Laura E. Campbell as Veronica Craye.

Josie de Guzman as Lady Angkatell.

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