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.

Ludwig ‘Holmes’ comedy a holiday treat at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

One of the interesting things about Ken Ludwig’s comedy mystery, “The Game’s Afoot, or, Holmes for the Holidays,” on stage at Buck Creek Players, is that the lead role is a fictionalized version of actual early-20th century actor William Gillette, who not only helped set the traditional look for Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, but also starred in a Holmes play that he wrote with the blessing of Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While, as portrayed here, Gillette did make fame and fortune as the legendary detective, tinkered with inventions to aid his stagecraft, and had a castle built for him on his Connecticut estate, Ludwig also plays up the man’s Holmes obsession to the point that he seeks to solve the mystery of an attempt on his life.

Hilarity, and apparently a murdered body or two, ensues.

Joshua C. Ramsey excels at rock-chinned steadfast leading man, even when played for laughs, and delivers Gillette’s stoic sense of purpose so well that flummoxed moments come off all the funnier. His family and friends (a/k/a, the suspects) are played by Cathie Morgan as Gillette’s mother, Martha; Tony Brazelton as Felix, his past best friend and present on-stage Moriarty; Tiffany Wilson as Marian, Felix’s wife; Hannah Partridge as recently widowed ingenue Aggie; and Josh Rooks as ambitious young actor Simon. They are joined at what they thought was an end-of-the run holiday party by ruthless newspaper columnist Daria Chase (Sarah Powell), and the evening’s activities will bring around an actual detective, Inspector Goring (Renee Lopez Whiten). In addition, Cyrena Knight, Breanna Helms, and Julie Gilpin play the house staff, and can step in as understudies.

Under the direction of Brian Noffke, no stranger to wild comedy, the cast all hit the farcical beats with professional precision. The exquisite stage set, designed by Ed Trout, includes an infamous rotating bookshelf used to full comic effect.

Even though I saw a production of this years back, I had forgotten “who done it” (yes, there is a mystery to solve amidst this madness) but even if you aren’t surprised at the end, you’ll assuredly be delighted by this unconventional “holiday” play.

“The Game’s Afoot” for two more weekends, through Dec. 18 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

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.

CCP serves up wacky ‘Tenor’

By John Lyle Belden

A Broadway hit that has become a community theatre favorite, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me A Tenor” is back on stage courtesy of Carmel Community Players.

For the unfamiliar, this hilarious farce takes place in the mid-20th century, set entirely in a Cleveland hotel room. The local opera company has secured a performance by world-renowned tenor “Il Stupendo” Tito Morelli (JD Walls). Mr. Saunders (Thomas Smith), the show’s producer, knows of the singer’s appetites for booze and women, and warns his young assistant, Max (Tyler Marx) to keep a close eye on him. Tito arrives with wife Maria (Sonja Distefano), who is furious about everything, especially Tito. Add to this the visits by Saunders’ daughter Maggie (Caity Withers), who loves Max but adores Tito; ambitious soprano Diana (Rachelle Woolston), who will do anything to get a career boost from the tenor; local socialite Julia (Sally Carter) who wants nothing more than to be seen with Morelli in public; and a singing bellhop (Joe Wagner), insisting on giving an impromptu audition. It’s important to note that Max is a talented aspiring singer, as well. Also, we lose track of the number of sleeping pills Tito takes for his afternoon nap.

The result is two full acts of slamming doors, sharply-executed physical comedy, and all the misunderstandings you can stand — along with some nice moments of operatic singing. Under the direction of Susan Rardin, this bunch take to their roles with gusto, each pitch perfect from Smith’s paternal surliness, to Withers’ charm, Woolston’s seductiveness, Distefano’s fire, Wagner’s cheekiness, Carter’s posh attitude and Walls’ resignation as he finds himself on the wildest ride in Ohio outside King’s Island. Marx as our everyman at the heart of an ever-deepening situation wins us over with his nervous aplomb as Max somehow makes it through it all. Also, as the featured opera is “Pagliacci” (the tragic clown), the tendency of white face makeup to come off on others adds its own comic element.

This “stupendo” production has one more weekend, playing through March 8 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way (near the downtown arts district), in Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.CarmelPlayers.org.

 

ATI opens with hijinks of another ‘Tenor’ farce

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t need to have seen the Ken Ludwig farce “Lend Me a Tenor” (though you really should when you get the chance) to understand the sequel, Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors,” now in its local premiere at Actors Theatre of Indiana.

In the original, we met world-famous tenor Tito Merelli – with ego and appetites to match his talent – performing in Cleveland. Now, a few years later, former Cleveland mayor Henry Saunders and his son-in-law Max (also characters from the earlier play) are managing Tito in a Three Tenors extravaganza in Paris. Max, a rising star in opera, is listed as the third.

Suddenly, the number two on the bill cancels, sending Saunders and Max scrambling. Meanwhile, Tito’s relationship with wife Maria is tempestuous as ever – and then there’s his free-spirited daughter Mimi. Also, Tito’s biggest operatic rival, Carlo Nucci, is in the hotel. And finally, a hot-blooded Russian soprano with whom Tito once had a fling, Racon, is in town. Summon the singing bellhop, and let the slamming-door fun commence!

Melodrama and misunderstandings get under way from the first scene. The laughs come steadily, with plenty of physical comedy, as the plot rolls with its own twists that differentiate it from the previous play.

Don Farrell plays Tito as a runaway train of emotions – then in the second act, he has to work twice as hard, an exhausting performance that pays off hilariously. Mark Fishback plays Saunders as nonstop neurotic, the control freak with nothing under control. Nic Eastlund’s Max is the softer counterpoint to his boss, a character less fearful than in his prior appearance, but now distracted by the impending birth of his first child. Amy Bodnar puts plenty of fire in her portrayal of Maria, and the same spark is in Jenny Reber’s Mimi. Brynn Tyszka also brings the heat as Racon, working it to comic effect. As Carlo, hunky Jacob Gerard Barnes pratfalls as good as he looks, And when Farrell, Barnes and Eastlund sing, you know this show was cast perfectly.

A fun start to the ATI season, “A Comedy of Tenors” runs through Sept. 30 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Box office at 317-843-3800 or thecenterpresents.org, or visit atistage.org for information.

Review: A farcical mystery, or mystery farce?

By John Lyle Belden

Up at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents “The Game’s Afoot,” a Sherlock Holmes-inspired comedy by Ken Ludwig, through Nov. 7.

Actor William Gillette (Josh Ramsey) is so comfortable playing Holmes that when a hated theater critic (Christine Kruze) is stabbed in his home during a dinner party – an affair set up to find out who had shot and wounded him during his last performance – he puts on the deerstalker hat and seeks to unravel the mystery, much to the consternation of the police detective (Carrie Ann Schlatter). Theatre friends (and suspects) played by Bill Book, Jean Childers Arnold, Alex Ray and Emily Howell, with Wendy Brown as Gillette’s mother, all add to the chaos and physical comedy Ludwig farces are famous for.

The gorgeous set is complete with the necessary doors to slam, a stairwell for entrances and even a hidden room with its comical moments. And the manner(s) in which our victim is dispatched does point out the real-world fact that if you’re not practiced at it, killing someone can be a lot harder than you think.

The play’s run ends Saturday. Get info and tickets at 317-843-3800 or http://www.civictheatre.org.