SANDY — In a time where old ideas are being tossed away, Hale Centre Theatre decided to throw out a very relatable show, Murder on the Orient Express, based on Agatha Christie‘s book. As the skilled cast boldly performed in the beautiful Jewel Box Stage, artfully fulfilling the rules of today’s “new normal,” this story came to life in a way that was a revealing look at the present. Plus, it was a relief to be able to get out and see real art.
Poirot has long been one of my favorite characters, and this mystery is a complicated one for him to solve. Train director Mr. Bouc engages Poirot to enjoy a ride on his unusually full train. This particular trip includes Michel the conductor; Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot, an English and Scottish couple who must hide their love; Ratchett, a wealthy businessman, and his assistant Hector MacQueen; Countess Andrenyi, the belle of the train; the most obnoxious American, Mrs. Hubbard; and an exiled Russian princess with her Swedish assistant, Greta. All these become suspects as murder ensues.
Barta Heiner directed wonderfully, and I loved the quick pace of the show. The two hours fly by like only a few minutes, and by the end I wished for more. I loved how the characters moved through the dining hall as if it were more crowded and cramped than it appeared. As the set (designed by Madeline Ashton) moved on a turntable, I was delighted to see characters going from one compartment of the train through the central hallway to their individual rooms, or clamoring around in terror after a fright. It was clever the way the three first private rooms were used for the action, while the dining compartment was for discussion and secret meetings. The train looked beautiful, with blue embroidered cushioned love seats in the dining car.
However, beginning the show with a film was interesting and spooky but possibly unnecessary as it didn’t seem to fit in with the play. Still, it helped a lot to have the audio memory echoing at the end when Poirot is referring to past events. I appreciated the professionalism of the show during this time as actors were free of any face covering or plastic barriers to distract from the beauty of theatrical art.
BJ Whimpey, in the role of Bouc, was a vibrant actor, and his jovial spirit roused the others on stage and heightened the comedic moments. Poirot, played by Mark Knowles played Poirot with more subtlety than what is seen in film adaptations of the story. It was a good fit for this show and made the character’s iconic status apparent. I could take this Poirot seriously and was able to empathize as I watched him work on solving a complicated crime. The only downside to Knowles’s performance occurred when he dropped his accent now and then.
I was impressed with Kelton Davis (playing both Samuel Ratchett and Colonel James Arbuthnot) because of his intensity and his very Scottish brogue. Davis was able to play both characters so well but differently that I had no idea he was Ratchett until after the show. I loved Tamari Dunbar as Mrs. Hubbard. She was so glorious in her obscene but regal personality, especially in the way she said “nibbles.”
Sound designer Dan Morgan was clever to have the actors’ microphones sound muffled when they exited a room still talking. The technique created the illusion that I was with the other characters, waiting for his return. Moreover, the train sound fit so well with the movements Heiner created that it felt like a real train. I liked the screech sound when the train stopped and the fuzzy interference on phone line as the characters called desperately for help. It kept me immersed in the show.
The costumes were so beautiful. Joy Zhu, the costume designer spared no expense, and the dresses were gorgeous and costume changes plentiful. Dunbar wore a beautiful purple dress in the beginning and later had on a light pink dress with a silver tone to it and a fox skin on one shoulder. Both costumes matched the character perfectly and communicated her high social status. I also loved Countess Adrenyi’s while thick fur around the top of her sparkling white gown with the red buttons and accents. Poirot looked very distinguished in his grey suit with red bow tie and carnation. Bouc’s pinstriped blue suit was joyful with green bow tie. And the Princess looked perfectly royal in her black sparkling dress. All the costumes were perfect for the early 20th century setting.
Murder on the Orient Express was an extremely enjoyable show, which I’m happy to say is open and inviting to audiences. I felt comfortable despite the mask, which during the introduction was described as the audience’s costumes. I enjoyed the lightheartedness of the theater and the excitement of the show. I do feel sad about the masks possibly hindering those who cannot wear one for health reasons from coming to the theater, but Hale Centre Theatre emphasized that having everyone masked was the only way the company could provide shows to the public at this time. Hopefully the show can help leaders in making those hard decisions of how to best meet the safety needs of very different people.