BWW Review: Desert Theatreworks Delivers a Very Stylish MURDER ON THE NILE
Indio's Desert Theatreworks continues their strong 2018/19 season with a stylish production of Agatha Christie's MURDER ON THE NILE. Smartly dressed characters with distinct, larger-than-life personalities, come together in the early 1940's onboard an Egyptian riverboat. One of them gets shot through the head, and the remainder of the show deals with the characters figuring out whodunnit.
As the lights come up at the top of the show, we see we are in the salon of a nicely outfitted riverboat. Upstage are a series of very large windows which allow us to see outside to the promenade and deck rails of the boat. As each guest boards the boat, we see them first through these windows, an enjoyable choice of staging which gives us a moment to appreciate them just from their clothing and body language. Artistic Director Lance Phillips-Martinez designed the set, and Phil Murphy's lighting often includes shimmering water reflections on the deck rails. When Egyptian music as selected by Miguel Arballo and Billy Franco is added to this picture, we have a very distinct sense of place. To start the action, the boat's steward (Miguel Arballo) and a pair of Egyptian bead sellers (Kaylyn Bernal and Marcus Leguillow) scurry back and forth from the parlor to the promenade deck as they ready the boat for boarding.
The first guests to arrive are an imperiously demanding woman of a certain age (Rebecca Hertsgaard) and her dogsbody of a niece (Charlotte Trudeau). The aunt can't imagine needing to lift a finger since her niece is there to do that, and anything else she might demand. Hertsgaard is a delight as a love-to-hate character, and Trudeau manages to keep her cool - and look very cute - as she does her aunt's bidding.
Next to board is a young socialist bachelor (Stephen Blackwell), looking very dapper in a light flannel suit and porkpie hat. He is followed by the obligatory dark-eyed foreigner - in this case, a doctor (PCT newcomer Bart Braverman, whom we hope to see more of). One of the elements for Dame Agatha's stage formula was a character with an accent, calculating that being foreign made them a bit suspicious to begin with (much like a certain politician!). Soon, newlyweds Simon (Mason McIntosh) and Kay (Tessa Walker -- another delightful newcomer) and their maid (Jannae Kleben) board to continue their honeymoon journey. Next onboard is a Catholic Canon (Hal O'Connell), who we soon learn is coincidentally Kay's uncle. They are joined by Jacqueline (Christine Michelle), Simon's previous girlfriend who seems to keep popping up wherever the honeymooning couple goes.
With all onboard, the gangway is lifted and the boat sets sail. As the guests get to know each other, it seems that all of them either have a connection to someone else onboard, or at least have seen the other guests as they traveled around Europe, and can clearly recall details about who the other guest was sitting with, etc. (dear Agatha did sometimes stretch credulity with these connections!).
Eventually, the groom gets shot in the leg by his ex-girlfriend, but that happens onstage, so no mystery. Then, the pistol which she has flung to the ground, goes missing. The missing pistol is then used to shoot the young bride through the head as she lies sleeping in her cabin, and each of the remaining characters could have done it.
By the time she wrote this play in 1944 (based on her 1937 novel Death on the Nile), Christie had grown tired - or perhaps jealous - of her leading sleuth, Hercule Poirot, so the interrogation and crime solving on the riverboat she assigned to the Canon, a very able Hal O'Connell.
The level of acting was overall very high. However, Director Daniela Ryan recognized that the script is awfully talky, especially in the first act, so during the breaks between scenes, she had the steward and his two helpers (the bead sellers re-dressed in tuxes) scurry about the stage in a flickering strobe, emulating silent film comics as they moved their own and each other's props around the set.
The young honeymoon couple, his ex-girlfriend, and the socialist bachelor are all attractive people and costumer Michelle Mendoza has wrapped them like gifts from Tiffany's. Every time they appear in new clothes, it's a delight. They all seem to move appropriately for the period of the costumes as well. Art Healy's hair and makeup add to the feeling of period style.
The show runs smoothly, thanks to stage manager Billy Franco and his assistant, Nick Wass. DTW seems to be developing a very competent and reliable technical team.
My problems were with the script itself - too much talking, not enough doing. This is exacerbated by none of the characters being written as nice people. In Christie's greatest stage success, The Mousetrap, the owners of the lodge are a sweet couple with whom we can relate. DTW delivered a stunning performance of that show several years ago. In A Murder is Announced which DTW presented more recently, there were several nice young people affected by the murder, and we could share their pain (that script was actually written in 1977 by someone else, and based on a Christie novel). However, in Murder on the Nile, even the canon, who is our hero, is tarnished because we see him demanding money from his niece. In her effort to make everyone on the stage dislikeable enough to be a potential murderer, we're left with no one to cheer for. Still, the two hours spent on the Nile are a nice little respite, and I think DTW has done an excellent and very stylish job in their presentation.