Director Sheldon Epps has brought to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts a powerful piece that invites us onto the stage and into the mystery, without grabbing us by the collar and yanking, with Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”
The play centers around a mystery involving and surrounding a murder on a train, the tragic stories of the train’s passengers, and a famous detective tasked in solving it all.
As live production adaptations of an Agatha Christie go, the staging of a play like “Murder on the Orient Express” is trickier to pull off than you might expect. As with Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” (aka “And Then There Were None”), staging is also critical when it comes to revealing clues. That said, more critical is the trick to staging a production whose plot is centered almost entirely on a train.
From a historical flashback to an inspector’s introductions; from a lush facade of an Istanbul restaurant to the train’s busy platform—all are seamless and lovely opening transitional scenes. But the single most spectacular moment in the opening of “Murder on the Orient Express” is the introduction of the play’s true main character, the grand entrance of the Orient Express.
Spectacularly crafted by Scenic Designer Stephen Gifford and lit by multi-Ovation award-winning Lighting Designer Jared A. Sayeg, with Sergey Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” Epps guides the Orient Express into a grand entrance worthy of a diva.
Epps stages the majority of “Murder on the Orient Express” in a series of well-appointed first class compartments of a luxury 1938 train designed and created by Gifford. Their truly successful trick: avoiding that confined or claustrophobic feel within such a limited space using ten actors on a moving train—a feeling one might feel while stuck on a snowed-in one.
Additional selling of 1930’s glamour and elegance in the play is also largely due to the costume design and makeup and hair by Shon LeBlanc and EB Bohks, along with properties design by Terry Hanrahan and the dialect coaching of Nike Doukas.
LeBlanc and Bohks succeed in not only recreating such classic looks, but in also successfully transforming Matthew Floyd Miller and Brad Culver into each actor’s assumed dual characters. Doukas’ work on the collection of accents that flavor each of the play’s characters certainly gives the actors more to chew on, and well they do. Hanrahan brings together elements of the lost life of the elegant train, along with creating several crucial props, such a well—or ill—placed hat box.
But for the performances, most notable is Tony Amendola as famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Amendola’s characterization is a slight departure from the oft-eccentric excessive caricature, presenting instead a Poirot that is brilliant, tenaciously focused, somewhat vain. Meticulous to a flaw as well, yes, but the characterization is far more subtle by comparison to those of recent (or late) television and film, lending us more apt to listen to what he says rather than focus on how he performs.
With film, eccentric might win you an Oscar. In a live production, overplaying such eccentricities could make Poirot comical to the point of ridiculous.
Well directed and played as well are Anne Gee Byrd as the matriarch Princess Dragomiroff, whose occasional comical barbs are matched only by the spirited and energetic repartee with Christine Dunford as Helen Hubbard. Julia Aks lends both a heartbreaking and often comical Greta Ohlsson, and Zarah Mahler’s Countess Andreyi gives rise to many double takes with props that accent as well. Time Winters gives an equally light-hearted, yet rightfully nervous character as Monsieur Bouc, and Culver keeps a rooted baseline tone with Michel the Conductor. Will Block as Macqueen is both funny and tragic as the nervous and clumsy assistant to Miller’s appropriately entitled and creepy Ratchett. The latter is also well matched to Rachel Seifirth’s Mary Debenham, and Hope Noel Bradley brings that spirit that lies behind the truth to this mystery’s murder.
Fans of the book will find this adaptation follows a bit closer to the text than several of its film production predecessors. However, unique to Ludwig’s adaptation is the reduction of the number of the play’s characters. Much “And Then There Were None,” readers and fans of the original canon know the crucial relevance of numbers in an Agatha Christie. In that, for Orient Express, the number “12” is relevant. However, this adaptation’s omissions still neither injure the mystery nor hinder the play’s resolution.
Someone fresh to the overall plot might not notice bits of foreshadowing on the station platform, as some players react to the addition of a famous passenger, but they are indeed there. And random bits of comical elements lighten up the atmosphere appropriately, often very well-timed and making way for more surprises. But in the end, these characters and their stories will break your heart. Except the train. The train is blameless.
“Murder of the Orient Express” plays now until Sunday, November 11, 2018, with shows on Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
There will be a talkback with the cast and creative team on Wednesday, November 7, 2018, and an ASL-interpreted performance on Saturday, November 10, 2018, at 2 p.m.
Visit the La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts for more information and tickets.