IRT’s Christie mystery an exciting ride

By Wendy Carson

In whodunits, the locked-door mystery is one of the cornerstones and most compelling of all scenarios in the genre. Someone had to have done it, but who, and how? Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of the most original versions of the mystery in existence – not only because of the lavish setting, but also the revolutionary solution to the puzzle. Famed playwright Ken Ludwig has adapted this intriguing story for the stage, now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Andrew May) has to cut his vacation in Istanbul short to take a case in England. In need of quick travel arrangements, he accepts an offer from his dear friend, Monsieur Bouc (Gavin Lawrence), of transport on his company’s train, the luxurious and now-legendary Orient Express. These two are joined by a quirky array of travelers.

British Colonel Arbuthnot (Ryan Artzberger) and Mary Debenham (Nastacia Guimont) are scheming about something in secret, yet not too covertly.

Samuel Ratchett (Ryan Artzberger in a second role) is a loud, rude American “businessman” who feels money can buy anyone or anything. Hector MacQueen (Aaron Kirby) is his overworked and oft-abused secretary.

Princess Dragomiroff (Dale Hodges), one of a number of exiled Russian royalty roaming about Europe, is traveling with a new companion, Greta Ohlsson (Callie Johnson) who has been serving as a missionary in Africa and is very unsure of anything.

The beautiful Countess Andrenyi (Katie Bradley) is traveling on her own. With her storied past, including a stint as a medical doctor, she intrigues everyone, including the elusive Poirot.

Also traveling on her own is the obnoxiously abrasive Helen Hubbard (Jennifer Joplin), an American who quickly gets herself on everyone’s “hit list.” Attempting to oversee all of this is Michel (Rob Johansen), the train’s French conductor.

Add to this a snowstorm that stops the train – right before a murder occurs – and you have a wonderful setting for a grand mystery. All passengers are accounted for at the time of the killing, or are they?

Anyone familiar with the character of Poirot knows that he is a quirky and particular personality. May adeptly explores as many facets as he can without frolicking into the territory of camp. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Artzberger does an exceptional job of playing vastly different characters with great aplomb. Guimont keeps her character a frigid distance from all but Arbuthnot, seemingly as a protective guise.

Joplin submerges herself into the typical “ugly American” so well, it is surprising that she is not the one who meets with the knife.

Hodges keeps the Princess as mysterious as her peculiar wardrobe. Johnson’s take on Ohlsson, the missionary, is wacky and almost overdone, but it does lend some lightness to the dark tale.

Kirby does an exceptional job of keeping his character sympathetic rather than just shady. Lawrence deftly keeps his frantic businessman persona from being entirely heartless, worrying equally about the safety of his passengers and the bad press a murder would bring to his luxury rail service.

Johansen shines both as the Conductor – not quite as minor a role as you’d first think – and his hilarious turn as the Head Waiter of Bouc’s restaurant in the show’s opening scene.

Bradley as the Countess enthralls us all, characters and audience alike, daintily dancing her way through the story never demanding but certainly drawing all attention available to her.

Christie’s story is a tale for the ages, especially with a twist ending that anyone unfamiliar with the book or movies will never see coming. Director Risa Brainin does a remarkable job keeping the soberness of the entire drama while allowing for its sharp wit, no doubt aided by Ludwig (known for farces like “Lend Me a Tenor”), to shine through.

The stage is a visual spectacle worthy of the legendary train, with designer Robert M. Koharchik placing elements of the sleeping and dining cars on an inventive rotating stage. This and projected elements by L.B. Morse give the proper sense of motion and help the scenes flow when the Express is stopped, maintaining the necessary tension. Even if you already know how it will eventually play out, it’s one exciting ride.

“Murder on the Orient Express” runs through March 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IRT revisits the radical notion of doing what makes you happy

By John Lyle Belden

As for the appropriateness of bringing out the classic comedy, “You Can’t Take it With You,” I’m tempted to say “in times like these” – but really, there will always be distress and drama around us, thus it is always a good time to see this funny, heartfelt show.

So here we are, with the Indiana Repertory Theatre giving us its finely crafted production. While the Great Depression continues outside their beautiful house, “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Robert Elliott) and his brood are feeling quite fine, thank you.

Penelope Sycamore (Millicent Wright) taps away at a typewriter that was accidentally left at their doorstep years ago, while her husband Paul (James Leaming) works on innovating large-display fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Ansley Valentine), a delivery man who never got around to leaving. Daughter Essie (Mehry Eslaminia) pursues ballet dancing, without quite catching it, under Russian ex-pat Boris Kolenkhov (Joey Collins), with her husband Ed (Carlos Medina Maldonado) accompanying on xylophone while printing whatever phrase sounds clever on his little press. Maid Rheba (Brianna Milan) happily prepares whatever meals the family’s whims dictate, from corn flakes to canned salmon, while wooed by handsome Donald (Adam Tran) who is helpful, but no too much as he’s “on relief.” Speaking of romance, the Sycamores’ other daughter, Alice (Janyce Caraballo), is about to marry her boss, Tony Kirby (Aaron Kirby, coincidentally), but she frets at the prospect of his parents (David Lively and Carmen Roman) meeting her not-quite-“normal” family. And on an evening when everyone is just being themselves, joined by friend and tipsy actress Gay Wellington (Molly Garner), they do.

In addition, we get visits from characters played by Scott Greenwell, Michael Hosp and Zachariah Stonerock, as well Jan Lucas as the Archduchess Olga.

For the unfamiliar, I can’t help but describe this play as “The Addams Family,” but without the creepy aspects – partly because the recent Addams Broadway show borrowed a lot of the same plot points. At the core of it all is the notion that there shouldn’t be something wrong or embarrassing with doing what feels right, along with the gentle lesson that one needn’t be doing what makes them miserable, either.

All performances are spot on and appropriately hilarious. It would be a crime not to have someone as talented as Wright in the lead, and her being in an interracial couple in the 1930s only underlines the exceptionally open and accepting nature of the central family. Also, Maldonado gets to show off his musical side.

Being the IRT, the whole look and feel is perfect, including scenic designer Linda Buchanan’s busy-yet-orderly set decoration. Peter Amster directs.

Do something that makes you happy – like check out this show. Performances are through May 19 on the IRT mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

#Juliet and her #Romeo @ IRT

By John Lyle Belden

A month after giving fresh polish to a well-worn Christmas story, the Indiana Repertory Theatre presents possibly Shakespeare’s most familiar play, “Romeo and Juliet.” Everyone knows this story, or at least assumes they do. My first thoughts regarding the IRT production were: Didn’t they just do this one? (It was 2010.) At least it’s only 90 minutes. (The edits are well crafted, aiding the flow and drama.) And, oh! I see Millicent Wright is the Nurse again. (She is marvelous.)

Fortunately, the IRT and director Henry Woronicz breathed new life into the old pages you read in high school – in a show performed for today’s students through the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities program – by presenting it in a “contemporary” setting. This involves more than putting the cast in today’s clothing, with modern blades taking the place of swords. Most importantly, vocal patterns (while still Shakespeare’s words) are more like familiar American speech. Wright’s delivery, for instance, is more BET than Bard.

Aaron Kirby is our Romeo, the hopeless romantic far more interested in girls than fighting in the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud. Either path to him is more a boy’s game than a man’s quest. As for Sophia Macias as Juliet, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen the character truly look and act 14 years old, complete with naive faith and immature impatience and impetuousness. If it is argued that this couple showed more wisdom than the adult characters, that is only a reflection of how foolish the fighting families are.

Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio (Ashley Dillard) and friend Mercutio (Charles Pasternak), also youths, are caught up in the excitement of the goings-on, the latter so manically Pasternak nearly acts like the Joker from Batman. Lord and Lady Capulet (Robert Neal and Constance Macy) are occupied with ensuring their family stays on top with a lucrative marriage of Juliet to Count Paris (Jeremy Fisher). The most noble characters, Prince Escalus (Pasnernak again) and Friar Lawrence (Ryan Artzberger), only want peace – the former through law and order, the latter through love.

With these, we present the boy-meets-girl story with a unique whirlwind courtship and marriage resulting (spoiler alert) in them both lying dead in a crypt just a few days later. But is there more to this?

Perhaps it was seeing this in today’s context – months into stories and reports of young women taken advantage of (the #metoo and #timesup movements, the USA Gymnastics abuses), reminded of the constant tragedy of youth suicide and self-destruction – that I couldn’t help seeing this story more through Juliet’s point of view. Macias’s scenes with Wright and Macy help bring the feminine struggles of the story (as applicable today as in the 1590s) in sharp relief. We see a girl – not a woman yet, though she desperately wants to be – working her way through impossible choices. Add to this the female casting of Benvolio (pitch-perfect work by Dillard), emphasizing the peacemaker aspects of the character.

“Romeo and Juliet” is said to be timeless, but this show boldly thrusts itself into the 21st century – with only the lack of text-laden cell phones in the kids’ hands separating it from our own world. For #R+J fans old and new, this version is worth checking out. Performances are through March 4 on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.