Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Agatha Christie's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" at Theatre in the Round

Theatre in the Round, the oldest theater in Minneapolis, has a tradition of presenting Agatha Christie mysteries. For their 71st season, they're premiering a new adaptation of Christie's first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920 and featuring what would become one of her most popular characters, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. I have to admit, I've never read any of her novels or seen any movies based on her mysteries, and I've only seen a couple of her plays (that tracks for a theater nerd), so I was previously unfamiliar with Papa Poirot. I found him to be a thoroughly delightful character, and this Mysterious Affair to be a well-plotted, suspenseful, and entertaining mystery. And after seven straight Christmas shows in a row, it was a nice palate cleanser from all the carols and figgy pudding and such. TRP's mysteries are quite popular and most shows are close to selling out, so if you want to catch this non-holiday offering before it closes on December 18, get your tickets soon!

We have all of the makings of a good mystery: a large and beautiful estate in the English countryside, a woman of wealth with a new and suspicious husband, two stepsons anxious for their late father's inheritance, several loyal (or not so) employees/wards, and lots of talk of poisoning. In this case it's Emily Inglethorp who ends up dead (not much of a spoiler, since she's the one with the money at play). Suspects include all of the aforementioned people, but conveniently her stepson John's good friend and amateur detective Lt. Arthur Hastings is at the estate when the deed goes down. He calls in his friend Poirot, who conducts his own investigation alongside the local detective. At some point everyone is a suspect, and I heard lots of guessing and theorizing at intermission, which is half the fun. In the end Poirot identifies the culprit, just as we knew he would.

everyone's a suspect! (photo by Anya Magnuson)
Director Linda S. Paulsen does a wonderful job navigating all the twists and turns of the plot, with multiple characters on and off stage. Everything flows smoothly and briskly, with good use of the in-the-round space. There's not a weak link in the 12-person mostly new-to-me cast, all speaking in charming British accents (thanks to dialect coach Joel Raney), each one of them acting both suspicious and innocent. But the two highlights in this cast are Ben Tallen as Poirot, so charming and lively and endlessly endearing, and Jake Leif as his friend Lt. Hastings, who serves as a sort of narrator, calmly leading us through the mysteries.

A few brick structures are placed around the in-the-round space to signify the grand manor that is Styles Court, including a large fireplace that is rotated to show different sides in different rooms. Outdoor wicker furniture means we're in the garden, with more somber period furniture moving in for the indoor scenes. Characters are dressed in neat WWI era period costumes. (Set design by Devyn Becker, costume design by Jessica Moore.)

If you're looking for some non-holiday theater this December, Theatre in the Round's world premiere adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is an excellent choice that will keep you guessing until the thrilling end. Click here for info and tickets, and make note of the remainder of TRP's 71st season, which includes plays by Sarah Ruhl and Sam Shepard.