BWW Review: MRS. CHRISTIE at Dorset Theatre Festival Brilliantly Tackles Old Things in New Ways
Heidi Armbruster has written a play that is sophisticated, smart, funny, heartbreaking, and hopeful--and it just had its world premiere right here in Dorset, Vermont.
Dorset Theatre Festival, under the leadership of Artistic Director Dina Janis and Producing Director Will Rucker, hurtled headlong into previews of Mrs. Christie Thursday night, the second World Premiere production of the Festival's 42nd Season and what a ride it was. Mixing old with new, detailed dramaturgy with mystery and artistry, Armbruster and director Giovanna Sardelli ask the audience to suspend disbelief and enjoy the journey. There are twists and turns, and perhaps a touch of treachery; this play is a mystery with ostensibly the world's most beloved mystery writer at its center, after all.
There are twists and turns, and perhaps a touch of treachery
Mrs. Christie is a reimagining of Agatha Christie's mysterious disappearance in 1926. Jumping seamlessly between 1926 and 2019, we experience parallels between the famed author and Lucy, an American who likewise seems lost, and who has come to a convention of mystery aficionadoes at the Christie homestead to find herself. As the mystery slowly begins to reveal long-held secrets, Armbruster shapes Lucy into an unlikely detective whose own grief and loss give her the ability to discover the missing pieces in Christie's own story.
"To be honest, it felt pretty intense," Armbruster admitted after the preview performance. As her first fully produced, staged work, it's easy to imagine this to be an understatement.
Armbruster's new play features a "fearless cast of actors," according to Janis in her current speech; the eight-person ensemble portrays a dozen characters over the course of the evening. Mary Bacon shines in the title role, and Jennifer Mudge delivers as Lucy. Susan Greenhill as Jane, and Sevan Greene as Hercule Poirot are pulled straight from the pages of Christie's novels and act as guardian angels to both Agatha and Lucy throughout the play. Betsy Hogg as Charlotte/Mary, also plays a crucial role as friend and confidante, fitting the archetype of a caring, knowledgeable servant who protects and guides a fragile Agatha through the tumultuous winter of 1926. Completing the cast, Michael Frederic plays Agatha's cold and cruel husband Archibald, Hannah Rose Caton, his much younger mistress Nancy Neele, and Stephen Stocking plays a charming William, mirrored in both past and present as a literary link for both Agatha and Lucy.
The preshow music sets the stage for this play perfectly. Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox played versions of Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," Fiona Apple's "Criminal," and the Cardigan's "Lovefool." This is a play that deals with old things done in new ways so the choice of Bradlee's big band covers was spot on and--when their cover of Radiohead's "Creep" came on at a pivotal moment in Act One--it was sheer theatrical magic.
There are countless moments of perfection in Armbruster's play and Sardelli finds and nails them every time. One such moment is when Mary Bacon's Agatha is perseverating on her husband's mistress, saying her surname "Neele" repeatedly until it somehow morphs into "kneel." Poignant and painful, Mary Hogg as Charlotte--or Carlo, as Agatha refers to her colloquially--wraps her arms around the grief-stricken Christie and prompts her to recite part of a prayer by Saint Teresa of Avila, "Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away: God never changes." And she is still.
Jennifer Mudge's Lucy is likewise running the gauntlet of grief, although the details of her own loss come to us more slowly, a mystery within the mystery that reveals itself only fully near the end. She does a stunning job portraying the ebbs and flows of her personal pain, depression, and ultimately resilience and hope. Her character brings the spunk, sass, and sarcasm across the pond and disrupts the staid status quo of respectable British life.
The other outsider is Christie's own larger than life Beligian, Hercule Peroit (Sevan Greene). Christie fans will have a hayday with all the Easter eggs Armbruster leaves as he ceaselessly insists on his own self-preservation. Their aquatic argument in act two will remain indelibly impressed in my mind for a long time to come.
And of course the creative team, as I have come to expect at Dorset, was stellar. Alexander Woodward's scenic design was beautiful and flowed between the three primary locations beautifully. Sarah Nietfeld's costumes captured the two time periods with close attention to detail and character, Stacey Derosier's lighting was flawless--and effectively played a crucial storytelling role in act two. Tony Award-Winner Fitz Patton designed the sound and--with the exception of some difficulty deciphering the dictaphone language at previews, was very effective. Thomas Schall was the production's fight choreographer.
I feel fortunate to have been at the first performance of this world premiere. The playwright summed it up after the show when she reflected, "I'm excited to watch this play grow, spin, and change." And while I'm sure the play will continue to evolve, it delivered the goods in spades. Whether you're an Agatha Christie aficionado or you just like great art, this play has to power to move you. It is a love letter to writing, to theatre, to the mysterious and indomitable human spirit.
Mrs. Christie by Heidi Armbruster runs August 1 - 17 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT 05251 $48-$58. For tickets or information, call (802) 867-2223 ext. 101, or visit www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.