And Then There Were None

For an evening of Agatha Christie at her best, check out Theatre Huntsville’s And Then There Were None, playing this weekend and next at the Von Braun Center Playhouse Theatre. The mood is perfectly set during the opening blackout with a haunting recitation of the “Ten Little Soldiers” poem, and this production carries that through to the final curtain, giving the audience an entertaining evening of trying, and likely failing, to stay ahead of Christie’s plot twists.  This is probably her most famous story, with a roomful of guilty people being killed one-by-one, and no one knowing “whodunit”.

Robyn Mitchell’s direction does a nice job of moving the story along, and giving us eleven distinct, interesting characters.  The blocking and tempo of the play are nicely controlled and un-contrived, supporting the mood, and helping to focus audience attention appropriately on an often crowded stage.  The interesting addition of acting out the characters’ personal memories behind an upstage scrim is almost too subtle, but makes for a nice additional touch.

The major missing element of this production was “theatre magic”–some sleight-of-hand with the toppling soldiers and the murders themselves. With an Agatha Christie play, the audience knows that murders will happen, and that they aren’t supposed to know who did it.  We expect misdirection, like a stage magician, and we want to be impressed with how it is pulled off right in front of our eyes, but this production doesn’t quite manage to do that.  The device of marking the deaths with the falling soldier figurines is clear from the beginning, but there was no attempt made to knock them over at the right times without the audience noticing.  The choice was apparently made to instead simply remove them at the nearest convenient scene change.  It is especially jarring when the audience can see five soldiers while the characters are mentioning seven, and one of the counted murders hasn’t even happened yet.  For the murders themselves, some of them are supposed to occur right in front of the audience, and serious planning has to go into the blocking to conceal it from the audience and to confuse us about who could have done it.  We need to believe that it did happen and we just didn’t see it, which this production doesn’t quite pull off.  It is especially notable, for example, when there is supposed to be a knife in a back, and we can plainly see that there is no knife.  A little more thought during rehearsals would have provided the necessary awe and wonder at the misdirection and sleight-of-hand, and likely pushed this otherwise enjoyable show into the standing-ovation category.

The cast is filled with exceptional work, and the group puts themselves into the running for any “Best Ensemble” awards out there.  Ethan Mitchell, as the swaggering “Lombard”; Ray Bonham Carter, as the uptight “Emily”; and Christopher Carter, as the hard-bitten “Blore”, all give their accustomed outstanding performances, each owning the stage with their very presence.  Chris Maynard, as the sweating, nervous, doctor “Armstrong”; and Erin Barrow, as the not-so-innocent ingenue “Vera”, are wonderful additions to the group, and we hope to see much more of them.  Joe Mosley, as the self-centered “Marston”; and John Wright, as the servant “Rogers”, created fully fleshed characters and nicely added to the production.  Paul Buxton, as judge “Wargrave”, does an admirable job of breathing life into probably the least distinctive of Christie’s characters.  Mel White has a special challenge portraying the aged general “Mackenzie” descending into dementia, but handles the task well.  With a little more thought into whether the character needs the cane or merely carries it, there is nothing further to be asked from this actor.  Jacinda Swinehart’s cook “Mrs. Rogers” isn’t quite the “nervous looking creature” she should be, but still provides a nice addition to the cast.  Brett Richards (or “Richardson”, depending on where one looks in the program) does a commendable job in his relatively small role as the boatman “Fred Naracott”.

The scenery designed by Lynn Broad and Robyn Mitchell, is simple, but effective.  A few more flats to clarify the demarcation between the inside and outside might have been helpful, and taking a steamer to the wrinkled backdrop would have been appreciated attention to detail.  But overall, the scenery and its dressing provides a nice backdrop for the action, and leaves the way clear for the focus of the show–the interplay between the ten characters caught in the space.

The costumes by Beth Curley Keys and Gay Broad are almost perfect.  The servant is a bit under-dressed for the upscale work that he’s doing, but other than that, the costumes do a wonderful job of capturing both the time period and the personalities of each character.

Cynthia Meyer and Tim Lighthall do a very nice job of setting the scene and mood with the lighting.  They give us everything from bright sunlight day, to spooky candle-lit night.  The only quibble might be that when the candles are carried out of the room in a rush, it’s not clear that the stage has gone dark BECAUSE the light sources have left, rather than because the scene has ended, leaving it unclear that the succeeding action is actually in real-time.  It almost comes across like the production couldn’t figure out how to hide the next murder, so they turned off the lights, when in reality, it’s supposed to be dark.  Still, that’s just one moment in a long production, with many lighting effects, to include sunrises, sunsets, and a major thunder storm outside the huge windows, and Meyer and Lighthall do wonderfully with all of it.

Martez Clemons’ sound provides fine support throughout.  It’s a shame that the speakers in the Playhouse are getting a bit old, and disrupt with the occasional fizz of static.  That said, the sound effects and music are well selected and balanced, and work well for this production.  It is no easy task to have long-running sound effects, like a thunderstorm, provide the right mood while not distracting from the dialogue, and Clemons gets the balance right.

Special kudos to the lobby display by Sarah Mitchell, which actually allows the audience to become detectives, examining all the evidence before the show and during intermission.

Overall, this is a very nice production.  For a good murder-mystery, it’s hard to beat Agatha Christie, the still-reigning queen of the genre.  Performances of And Then There Were None continue tonight and tomorrow, and then Thursday through Saturday next week.  Ticket information and show times are available at Theatre Huntsville’s website.