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.