Entertaining ride on ‘Orient Express’

By John Lyle Belden

There are two kinds of people who watch a production – film or stage – of the Agatha Christie mystery “Murder on the Orient Express.”

First, there are those who have never seen how it ends. If you encounter such a patron at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre production of the play, running through March 25, DO NOT TELL THEM WHODUNIT. Being one of the most famous and creative reveals in the genre, it’s best to be savored as it happens.

Then, there are the fans of stage, screen, or the original text, who know the answer and just enjoy the widely varied and wildly interesting cast of characters, all falling under the scrutiny of Christie’s eccentric Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

Penned by Ken Ludwig (at the request of the Christie estate), this “Murder on the Orient Express” more than satisfies both groups. The blizzard of clues – too many, in fact, Poirot notes – will keep newcomers guessing, and Ludwig’s comic touch ensures at least as many laughs as thrills.

Eric Reiberg is pitch-perfect as Poirot in, a credit to him and director John Michael Goodson, a fairly laid-back portrayal of the character. Rather than have an exaggerated look and personality, even his famous curled mustache is understated, letting the various suspects on board the train do the clowning. Still, his bearing, accent, and little quirks are true to character and exert the proper gravitas (in this story, the detective is already world famous).

To set up the play, we get some disturbing audio, as well as Poirot addressing the audience that what we see is a flashback to one of his most complex and troubling cases. With this, we open in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1934. Needing a quick ride across Europe, the detective travels the famed Orient Express, bound for Calais, France, as the honored guest of the director of the rail line, Monsieur Bouc (Rex Wolfley).  

Various men and women board, including a very cocky yet nervous American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Lee Russell), who tries to hire Poirot to find out who sent him threatening letters. Offended by his rudeness, the detective refuses. But when, with the train halted by a snowdrift in what was then Yugoslavia, Ratchett lies dead of multiple stab wounds, Hercule Poirot finds himself on the case.

Aside from ever-patient conductor Michel (Ronald May) we have our suspects – in fun performances by Evangeline Bouw, Luke Faser, Lauren Frank, Susan Hill, Alexis Koshenina, Sherra Lasley, and Clay Mabbitt – who all have alibis. And what might the motive be? As Poirot peels back the layers of the mystery and discovers hidden identities, he can only come to one conclusion. Or, perhaps, two.

A script like this allows for going a little over the top, and Lasley is a hoot as our brash American who married into riches and belts into song. Bouw is sweetly memorable as a countess who happened to go to medical school. Hill is commanding as the Russian princess; Koshenina is retreating as a shy missionary. Mabbitt and Frank slyly arouse our suspicions even before their characters board – but we actually see where they are at the apparent time of the murder.

I’ll say no more. You need to see this for yourself, but tickets for this wild ride are selling fast.

The Orient Express was an actual rail line, but, alas, its last departure was in 2009. Next best thing is to see this version. Performances are in the appropriately intimate confines of The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For information and tickets, go to civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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