Moonlight Stage sleuths through a spot-on revival of Agatha Christie’s masterful murder mystery
By Donnie Matsuda
When there is a murderer on the loose and it is almost certain he’s lurking around your guest home waiting for his next kill, it’s always best to start by asking a lot of questions. For instance, where was he last seen? He was last seen leaving the body of Mrs. Lyons after strangling her to death at her home in Surrey. And, what does he look like? He was wearing a long, dark overcoat, a light scarf, and soft, felt hat. Anything out of the ordinary about this man? He is fascinated with the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” and authorities suspect that he will strike three times. With Mrs. Lyons now dead, there are two more victims to be had.
(Left to right): Jessica John, Phil Johnson, and Jonathan Sachs. Photo by Ken Jacques.
And so the manhunt (or is it mouse-hunt?) for the killer begins in the classic “whodunit” English murder mystery, The Mousetrap. It’s a flawlessly constructed, highly durable stage play, as proven by its impeccable track record: the original production opened in London’s West End in 1952 and has never closed, taking in more than 24,000 performances and making it the longest running play in the world. Now, as this mother of all murder mysteries celebrates its 60th consecutive year at the Ambassador Theatre in London, Moonlight Stage is kicking off its 22nd winter season by staging a killer revival of this tried and true detective play.
Penned by the quintessential mistress of the mystery thriller genre, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap tells the tale of a group of strangers who are fortuitously brought together in an old boarding house called Monkswell Manor, now transformed into a cozy guest home by young couple Mollie and Giles Ralston (an exuberant, captivating Jessica John and a doting, dapper Jonathan Sachs). Their guests arrive just before a severe snowstorm hits. The first is young architect Christopher Wren (a neurotic turn by Ethan Mikael Tapley) whose mousy, unkempt appearance and agitated demeanor make him suspicious from the start. Next, there is impossible-to-please, ex-magistrate Mrs. Boyle (a tart and tenacious Dagmar Krause Fields) whose non-stop bitchy banter gets on everyone’s nerves. Arriving with her is Major General Metcalf (a genuine Walter Ritter), a retired military man who brings a calm and quiet presence to everyone and everything around him. Finally, Miss Casewell (an edgy and aloof Rachael Van Wormer) is last to arrive, full of pent up angst and preoccupied with dark secrets from her past.
But, of course, there are the unexpected guests who arrive just as the snowstorm hits and before the phone lines are cut. There is a mystifying, middle European man named Mr. Paravicini (an over-the-top Phil Johnson) who comes blustering in claiming that his car has been overturned in the snow and he has nowhere else to go. Then, a detective on skis named Sgt. Trotter (a suave Jake Rosko) shows up to investigate the recent murder of Mrs. Lyons and begins setting traps to catch the culprit.
(Left to right): Dagmar Fields, Jessica John, Jonathan Sachs, Jake Rosko, and Ethan Tapley. Photo by Ken Jacques.
As the mystery slowly unfolds, we get to know more about each of the eccentric and utterly suspicious characters who have come to stay at Monkswell Manor. Everyone here has a secret, some of which are innocent, but Christie makes it possible that each person could be the murderer. And when these oddball characters are brought to life by Moonlight’s engaging ensemble cast, they keep everyone on the edge of their seats and watching their backs.
Director Jason Heil (who returns to the AVO after staging the critically-acclaimed productions of “Barefoot in the Park,” “Ring Round the Moon,” and “You Never Can Tell”) brilliantly pulls the pieces of this mystery puzzle together and demonstrates great skill in shifting focus from individuals to the ensemble cast and back to individuals again. He also creates some striking, well-balanced “picture perfect” moments when the entire cast is on stage. Despite the fact that the play is two hours of talk and exposition (with a murder thrown in for good measure), Heil keeps things moving at a steady pace and manages to keep a sense of controlled urgency and utter intrigue running throughout. Overall, his organic approach is more muted than melodrama, but he remains loyal to Christie’s work while extracting some entrancing performances from his ensemble cast.
(Left to right): Jake Rosko and Ethan Tapley. Photo by Ken Jacques.
Aiding him in bringing Monkswell Manor to Moonlight is a first rate team of designers. Scenic designer N. Dixon Fish has crafted a handsome, detailed English boarding room set that dominates the stage with its creaky wooden doors, massive pointed archways, and paneled walls that are as high as the sky. The sharply designed set is well lit (though at times a bit too harshly) by designer Paul A. Canaletti, Jr. and costume designers Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd have pulled together some fitting and incredibly fine creations to keep their cast warm in the dead of England’s winter.
Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is one of the finest plays ever written, with ingenious plot twists and turns that keep the audience guessing from start to satisfying (if a bit shocking) finish. And here, in the capable hands of a stalwart director and sterling cast, Moonlight’s production is so meticulously macabre…dare I say it…it’s to die for.
Things to know before you go: The Mousetrap presented by Moonlight Stage Productions plays at the AVO Playhouse through February 5th, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $22-$30. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com.