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.

‘Old Broads’ up to new tricks at Buck Creek

By John Lyle Belden

Something’s not right at Magnolia Place senior assisted living facility.

Imogene (Gari Williams) is having “episodes” with memory lapses; Maude (Wendy Brown) has stopped bathing and obsessively plans her own funeral; and best friends Beatrice (Jan White) and Eaddy Mae (Cathie Morgan) need to get to the bottom of why, soon, so they’ll be on time for their planned cruise vacation.

Meet “Four Old Broads,” the comedy by Leslie Kimbell at Buck Creek Players. 

Feisty Beatrice and churchy Eaddy Mae suspect the problem is the hostile new facility director, Nurse Pat (Lauren Johnson), who is keeping all the residents’ medicine and doling it out to them. Since this started, a lot of folks have crossed over to the “dark side” ward with swiftly declining conditions. The ladies are offered help from aging Elvis impersonator Sam (David Mears), who still feels like a hunka-hunka burnin’ love.  At least new nurse Ruby Sue (Ruth Shirley) seems nice, if she can get her nose out of that trashy romance book.

A comedy, mystery, and maybe sly commentary on how we treat our elders, this show is full of laughs and surprises, directed by Tracy Friddle.

White as Beatrice is a force of nature, sporting a wild attitude with clothes to match. Morgan as Eaddy Mae is more a force of nurture, sweet and sensible, with frequent prayer breaks — acting as Beatrice’s conscience as well as her own. Williams as Imogene gets the most complex role, entertaining even when in an apparent coma. Brown’s Maude exasperates all on stage, especially with her attachment to her TV “stories,” further adding to the laugh factor. Mears as Sam seems like a bit much at first, but wins his way into our hearts, as well as one of the ladies. Shirley as Ruby Sue does a lot with what deceptively looks like a little role, and Johnson’s Pat is appropriately despicable. 

“I’m not trying to get into anyone’s personal business,” as Eaddy would say, but I’d advise getting up to stretch and take a break during intermission, as the play does run long. When the mystery is solved, there is still a scene to tie up other loose ends.

One weekend remains with the “Four Old Broads,” Friday through Sunday, Feb. 7-9, at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

ATI: Duo hits all the right notes in musical mystery

By John Lyle Belden

Do you like great comedy? How about an interesting whodunit? A pair of actors taking on numerous roles throughout? A clever musical? Even skillful four-hand piano playing? Well, has Actors Theatre of Indiana got a show for you!

In the Indiana premiere of Off-Broadway hit “Murder for Two,” by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, Adam LaSalle primarily plays Officer (on the verge of being Detective) Marcus Moscowitz, and David Corlew plays nearly everyone else — AKA “the Suspects” — in the home of famed mystery author Arthur Whitney — AKA the victim. Both actors also play the piano that sits in the middle of the room — sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes switching off or together, always with a high degree of skill.

A surprise party for Whitney takes a shocking turn when, as he enters the front door, he is shot in the forehead!  His wife is naturally distraught, as someone has stolen the ice cream, and all the other guests, including a talkative psychiatrist, a beautiful prima ballerina, a bickering old couple, Whitney’s highly inquisitive niece, and a three-member Twelve-Member Boys Choir, are all acting suspicious as each one has a motive to off the author. Enter “Detective” Marcus and his unseen partner, Lou (two actors can only do so much). The officers were instructed to secure the scene until the actual Detective arrives, in an hour, but Marcus seizes the opportunity to crack the case and win his promotion.

This show is loaded with laughs, wacky character switching (sometimes seeming to catch the actors off-guard), piano work that’s a cross between Victor Borge and the Marx Brothers, and well-timed fourth-wall moments that work wonderfully in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater. Corlew’s skills as a circus performer (a “quadruple-threat”?) aid the physical comedy, and he and LaSalle have excellent chemistry, despite the fact they first met at rehearsals.

Corlew is based in Chicago, and LaSalle in New York; director Tony Clements said after a triumphant opening night, “I was so glad they got along so well from the beginning.” Clements also noted that despite many free-wheeling moments, the script only allowed for a few points of possible improvisation. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find where in all the controlled chaos they actually winged it. 

And kudos to Lou; we didn’t see a single flaw in his performance. 

ATI serves up “Murder for Two” through Feb. 16 on its stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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P.S. ATI will also present a two-night special event, a special production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with a full cast joined by the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Feb. 21-22 at the Palladium in the Center for the Performing Arts (north side of the ice rink). Performers include ATI founders Don Farrell as Sweeney, Judy Fitzgerald as Mrs. Lovett, and Cynthia Collins as the Beggar Woman, as well as Elizabeth Hutson (Joanna), Rory Shivers-Brimm (Jonas Fogg), Karaline Feller (Bird Seller), Mario Almonte III (Pirelli), Tim Fullerton (Judge Turpin), Matthew Conwell (Anthony), David Cunningham (Tobias), Michael Elliott (Beadle), and an 80-member chorus from the Indianapolis Arts Chorale. See the above contact information for tickets.

 

Secrets abound at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

Want to know a secret?

They don’t want me to tell. They don’t want any details leaking of “Trap,” the suspenseful hybrid of documentary, found footage and cutting-edge theatre, by Stephen Gregg, now playing at Buck Creek Players. They don’t want me to tell you what really happened at the Oak Box Theater in Menachap, California, why it’s haunted, why this is important. So many deaths, so many unconscious and dying.

So many cast members who are new to BCP. So many who are apparently 16 — this is also important. Have you heard of them? Do you know Dylan Albertson, Steven Allen, Ken Cutshall, Kirsten Cutshall, Ray Gron, Lauren Johnson, Stacy Long, Brigitte McCleary-Short, Rebecca D.M. McVay, Toni Riera, Lauren Ruddick, Ericka Dianne Ward, Caleb Weir and Rhiannon Wiggs? They make a good ensemble, playing multiple characters as the narrative demands, notably McCleary-Short as Detective Heche, Allen as the first-responder who refuses to give up, Ruddick as the one who knew something was going to happen, and Long as the one person who didn’t succumb in the “event.” 

To me, at least, the ending seemed predictable, but we let it come anyway. It was so interesting, a picture of infinity turning in on itself — where have I heard that? Anyway, ninety minutes of the first (only?) act, and then we are just let go. Or were we?

Something happened there. Perhaps you should find out as well, before the run ends on Oct. 6. The playhouse is at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

IRT opens ‘Angry’

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a hot summer night, and what will happen in this room will have life and death consequences for someone you’ve never met.

Welcome to “Twelve Angry Men,” the classic American drama by Reginald Rose opening the 2019-2020 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Set in 1957, this play is both very much of its time, and timeless. The struggles and society these dozen characters deal with are every bit as real today as they were then.

Our 12-man jury is tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder. If the verdict is guilty, the death penalty will be applied. The men are all from different backgrounds, working class to rich. Though all white, they have roots in different ethnicities. 

The jury foreman (Seth Andrew Bridges) calls for a preliminary vote. Since the result seemed so obvious during the trial, all vote “Guilty” — except for one (Chris Amos). Why? He doesn’t want a rush to judgement, he says, and besides, he has some questions.

For the next hour-plus (the play is a single movie-length act) we hear the details of the case, presenting the murder mystery in nearly enough detail to give the audience a vote. 

The men arguing are all sharply acted, under the direction of James Still, giving dimension to their archetypes: Scott Greenwell as mousey, yet wanting to see justice done; Craig Spidle as one easily convinced of the evil “kids these days” can do; Henry Woronicz as a rich broker who wants to see the facts as plain and ordered as the newspaper he reads; Demetrios Troy as a man with more in common with the defendant than he’d like to admit; Casey Hoekstra as a laborer whose work ethic informs his judgement; Michael Stewart Allen as a loud Yankees fan (he wants the deliberations done in time to go to a game) who sounds more certain than he actually is; Mark Goetzinger as an older gentleman struggling to bring perspective to the proceedings; Robert Jerardi as a bigot determined to see “one of them” condemned; Patrick Clear as an immigrant excited to exercise his new citizenship; Charles Goad as an ad man who can’t help playing both sides; Bridges’ foreman, whose skills as a high school coach come into play; and Amos’ holdout, the conscience of the play and principal driver of the “reasonable doubt” that can turn the verdict around. Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard stationed outside the jury room door. 

Most people know, or can easily guess, the outcome of this drama. What is important, and makes this engrossingly entertaining, is how they get there. The knife, the steps, the glasses, all the clues and what they suggest, making for an intense 100 minutes. And the title is apt: these men get plenty angry — including at each other.

The stage set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, is a masterwork, including a washroom to the side that can be made to be seen through screens when needed, as some juror discussions take place privately. The custom-made long wooden jurors’ table sits upon a turntable that slowly moves at times to aid our perspective of the deliberations. And at moments an actor might step away from the churning motion to demonstrate his seeking clarity. 

While the idea seemed gimmicky, the turning table is not constant, and thus works to great effect. Still notes this aspect of the stage was discussed early on in the production. “You mostly just have 12 men sitting around a table,” he said. “We needed something dynamic.”

The deliberations continue through Sept. 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, by Circle Centre. Info and tickets at http://www.irtlive.com.

Footlite presents who-will-do-it murder mystery musical

By John Lyle Belden

One thing is clear from the beginning of “Murder Ballad,” someone is going to die.

Playing at Footlite Musicals, this intense no-intermission rock opera presents four characters: our Narrator (Miranda Nehrig), who guides the fateful story’s journey while eventually becoming a character in her own right; Tom (Dave Pelsue), a proud bartender with dreams but little to show for them; Sara (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow), a frustrated poet fiercely in love with Tom, but feeling them drifting apart; and Michael (Daniel Draves), a writer who gives up his verse to make a perfect life for Sara.

After a coy courtship, Michael and Sara marry, have a daughter, make a home – but eventually, feeling restless again, Sara calls Tom at his new, successful bar. Old feelings awaken; this will not end well.

Pelsue, a veteran of shows such as “Rock of Ages” and “Tooth of Crime,” is totally in his element. Nehrig combines singing chops with exceptional acting – her ability to effectively speak volumes with a simple facial expression suits the Narrator role well. Ludlow makes a wonderful, powerful Indy theatre debut. And Draves works well the full range of emotions – his tenderness in apt contrast to his eventual rage.

Audience seating is on the Footlite stage, with actors sometimes moving among the cabaret tables for a more immersive experience. There is also a great on-stage band, with Eddie McLaughlin, Kris Manier, Will Scharfenberger and music director Ainsley Paton.

At the core, this is a story of love, betrayal and consequences, things we can all relate to. The principal mystery – who is killed, at whose hands – is revealed at the end. But then, we get what may be the musical’s best song in the Finale: a commentary on how we in the audience so enjoy murder as entertainment (so long as it’s not us getting hurt).

So, maybe we all got a little blood on our hands. Still, it’s one hell of a show.

“Murder Ballad” has one more weekend of shows, Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 17-20) at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

IRT mystery with murder, mayhem and Moriarty

By John Lyle Belden

Would you recognize Sherlock Holmes if you saw him? That question is at the heart of “Holmes and Watson,” a mystery by Jeffrey Hatcher opening the 2018-19 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

The play is set on a remote Scottish island, several years after Holmes is believed to have died, gone over a Swiss mountain waterfall with his archrival Moriarty. (Tired of the character, author Arthur Conan Doyle offed the detective in “The Final Problem.” Bowing to public pressure, he brought Holmes back to life 10 years later.) Dr. Watson (played by Torrey Hanson) has been debunking the many impostors claiming to be the miraculously surviving Sherlock Holmes. Now, in an old fortress and lighthouse converted to an asylum, he is confronted with three.

The facility’s head, Dr. Evans (Henry Woronicz) presents a trio of distinctly different men (Michael Brusasco, Nathan Hosner and Rob Johansen), all claiming to be the detective. Having otherwise only seen an orderly (Ryan Artzberger) and the Matron (Jennifer Johansen) in the building, Watson surmises the three men are the only inmates. The mystery deepens as we discover that there has been a murder prior to Watson’s arrival, and a mysterious woman at large.

I dare not say more, so you can unravel this for yourself at the show. We tend to think of Sherlock Holmes as a singular character, but we are presented by three different but familiar archetypes: the classic Holmes of old films, the adventurous Sherlock of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the odd iconoclast reminiscent of Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary.” We also noticed a clue – never noted by anyone on stage – that could be an insight into what’s really going on.

These amazing actors all put in excellent work. I don’t want to give individual praise for fear of giving away a secret, but suffice to say all are perfectly suited to characters where any of them may not be whom they seem.

The play is directed by former IRT artistic director Risa Brainin, who is familiar with Hatcher’s works, as well as the man himself. Robert Mark Morgan’s brilliant stage design contains sweeping layered curves, suggesting an aperture or the eye’s iris, opening and closing as the focus of the inquiry shifts.

Though not by Doyle, this drama fits right in the world he wrote for Holmes, with a tantalizing mystery worthy of the canon, complete with plot twists you’d see on an episode of “Masterpiece.”

“Holmes and Watson” runs through October 21 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit http://www.irtlive.com.

Mud Creek presents a little mystery with a lot of laughs

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a real treat to see stage veterans cut loose on a good American farce, such as the faces familiar to audiences at Mud Creek Players generating laughter with “Exit the Body.”

In the early 1960s – when telephones were not only still connected to the wall, in rural areas you still had to talk to the local operator – popular mystery writer Crane Hammond (played by Linda Eberharter) is spending a few weeks in the New England countryside to relax and work on her next novel, dragging reluctant secretary Kate (Barb Weaver) along. The cottage, just down the road from best friend Lillian (Judy McGroarty) and arranged by local real estate agent Helen (Ann Ellerbrook), has secrets of its own – including the possibility of hidden stolen diamonds! It appears that the housekeeper, Jenny (Savannah Jay), is in cahoots with local thug Randolph (Eric Matters) to recover those jewels, wherever they are.

Meanwhile, Lillian introduces her new husband, Lyle (Tim Long), but because of trouble with the old husband, she tells people that he is actually Crane’s husband, Richard (Joe Forestal – he’ll show up eventually). For local flavor, we have handyman/taxi driver/sheriff Vernon (Kevin Shadle). And for the titular Body, we have Phillip Smith (Tom Riddle), who could be anybody.

The hilarious slamming-door antics are helped along by a closet at the center of the set (designed by Jay Ganz) that opens into both the living room and the backstage library. The script and cast make full use of its comic and spooky (the body was there, now it’s gone!) possibilities. Though a mystery, this show delivers more laughs than chills, much like a Scooby-Doo episode for grown-ups.

Ellerbrook has Crane dealing with being in the plot rather than writing it, with McGroarty’s Lillian welcoming the diversion and Weaver’s Kate chewing the scenery with biting sarcasm. Long has Lyle just taking it all in stride. Generating the most laughs are Shadle – with a style reminiscent of a Carol Burnett cast member, keeping his character at the edge of absurdity – and Jay, whose airhead Jenny manages to charm while squeezing all the corn out of a Southern accent.

“Exit the Body” runs through Sept. 29 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn” at 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton area and Geist Reservoir). Call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop, making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Kruze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

IRT ‘Dial M’ nearly perfect

By John Lyle Belden

Many have considered what it would take to commit the “perfect crime;” some even attempt it. The concept is fascinating, especially when it comes to murder. This could explain why the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, chose the Frederick Knott stage drama, “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” to be one of his iconic films.

To conclude its 2016-17 season Indiana Repertory Theatre presents Knott’s noir thriller, complete with Hitchcockian touches, on its mainstage through May 21.

Jealous, scheming husband Tony (Matt Mueller) has planned the perfect murder, arranging for an unsavory acquaintance to kill his wife Margot (Sarah Ruggles) while he is at a party, alibied by none other than the man she had had an affair with, Max (Christopher Allen). But when the perfect crime goes wrong, Tony resorts to the next-best thing: the perfect frame-job.

As always, the IRT provides excellent production values in setting and costume, and sharp direction under James Still (who is also IRT’s playwright-in-residence). The atmosphere is completed with projected images and shadows on the set’s upper walls. Performances are first-rate, including Robert Neal as Detective Inspector Hubbard, who must sort out the truth from the contradictory evidence he has found.

There’s also a cheeky touch that Hitch would have loved: Major scene changes are done by “detectives” acting as though they are removing and planting evidence.

The weather is warming up, but IRT is good for one more chill. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.