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BWW Review: Theatre Artists Studio Presents THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE


Kirt Shineman's new play runs through November 21st at Theatre Artists Studio.

BWW Review: Theatre Artists Studio Presents 

Did the "Queen of Crime" plan an actual murder?

It's a tantalizing proposition, isn't it, that Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, the prolific mystery writer and creator of legendary sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, would herself take a turn towards the dark side?

It is as well an intriguing enough question to invite the curious playgoer to see just what Kirt Shineman has cooked up in his new play, THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE, premiering at Theatre Artists Studio.

Shineman, an accomplished playwright with a flair for suspense and intrigue, has done his homework. As he has in prior works (Germs and Viruses, Airdrop, Benkelman), here again he lifts from the pages of history ~ in this case, to craft a story line inspired by the author's eleven-day vanishing act in August of 1926.

A raft of references, all available for the reading on the company's website, provide context for what was then a cause célèbre and remains to this day a subject of titillating speculation. One explanation suggests that Christie was so distressed by the death of her mother and embarrassed by her husband Archibald's affair with Nancy Neele that she stole away to anonymity three hundred miles to the north of England for relief.

While the incident is ripe for another explanatory stab, the playwright steers the story in a surprisingly different direction.

Set the calendar forty-nine years later to a late December day and just a month prior to Christie's death. The author and her alter ego, Mary Westmacott, share an evening of tea and camaraderie until Agatha turns the screw on the conversation and asks what would it be like to commit a murder. Indeed, what would it be like to murder Nancy Neele?

In a twist worthy of an Agatha Christie novel, Neele is reported (quite coincidentally) to have succumbed under questionable circumstances in a nearby retirement home. Could it be that the octogenarian Agatha, whom we see surreptitiously leaving Greenway House, has dealt the deadly blow of revenge?

Here's where we ask, does it matter? For the mystery appears more a cover story beneath which Shineman has cleverly devised a piercing and ultimately poignant portrayal of dementia. (Some studies have suggested that Christie suffered from Alzheimer's Disease.)

As the play progresses, some of the main characters of Agatha's celebrated life ~ more like transitory figments of her wandering remembrances~ come and go, each playing their assigned parts and tending to her in their own ways and for their own interests: Rosalind, the dutiful and protective daughter (Anne Sanford) and her second husband Tony (impaired by an inexplicable inclination for clumsiness); Billy Collins, Agatha's testy publisher and editor; and Archie, stiff-necked and tuxedoed. (All the male roles are performed by Trevor Penzone).

If there is a moment when the passage to forgetfulness is foreshadowed, it is when Mary announces that she must at last leave Agatha's presence. Despite Agatha's pleas, the die is cast. This is the inconsolable tragedy of the departing muse ~ slipping slowly out of Agatha's consciousness much as Mary slips offstage through a hidden door. (Mary Westmacott was Christie's nom de plume for six novels that probed the psychology of human relationships.) Agatha Christie is crossing the line from which there is no return, when shifts occur in the pathways of the brain that separate yesterday from tomorrow.

Thanks to Janis Webb's careful direction, the multi-layered performances of Pamela Fields as Agatha and Katibelle Collins as Mary, and Shineman's crisp writing, THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE is a mind-bending and heart-gripping play.

All the elements of the play ~ the finely tuned performances by each of the cat members; Douglas Clark's impressive set design and Stacey Walston's lighting; finely tailored costumes, credits to Dolores D'Amore Goldsmith and Marilyn Linde; and spot-on dialect, thanks to Micha Espinosa ~ fit together very neatly for a highly engaging production.

At the center of it all is Fields's poised and stately portrayal of Agatha Christie, consummated by a final exhortation that, even as one succumbs to the twilight of dementia, there remains a light at the end of the tunnel. Seize the moment!

THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE runs through November 21st.

Photo credit to Bill Phillips

Theatre Artists Studio Presents ~ 12406 N. Paradise Village Parkway East, Scottsdale, AZ ~ ~ 602-765-0120

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