Thursday, May 25, 2023

"Murder on the Orient Express" at the Guthrie Theater

One of Agatha Christie's most well-known mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express, was first adapted to the stage just six years ago. Playwright Ken Ludwig brings his usual fun, fast, high-energy style to the adaptation. Previously unfamiliar* with the material, I found the Guthrie's new production to be constantly surprising and delightful. The production design that depicts an elegant art deco European train is stunning, and the ten-person mostly local cast is truly an embarrassment of riches. This Orient Express is pure entertainment from start to finish - a smart adaptation of a classic mystery perfectly executed by the cast and creative team, and even with a bit of depth as the famous detective Hercule Poirot contemplates the nature of justice and his role in it. Hop on board the Orient Express now through July 2

The majority of the play takes place on a luxury train traveling from Istanbul to several cities in Western Europe. An eclectic mix of characters each has their own story and their own reason for being on the train. One of the characters is Agatha Christie's most enduring and endearing characters, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is on vacation. Like many great detectives of literature, TV, and film, murder and mystery seem to follow him wherever he goes. So of course, someone on the train is murdered, and everyone else becomes a suspect. The murderer turns out to be the person responsible for a sensational child kidnapping and murder (similar to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which Wikipedia confirms was an inspiration for the book). Poirot interrogates all of the passengers and tries to determine who has ties to this case and would want the man dead. To tell you any more would spoil the delight of watching it unfold (for the three other people who've never read or seen an adaptation of this story), but along the way there are romances, red herrings, guns, and secret identities revealed.

Poirot (Andrew May) examines a piece of evidence
(with Katie Bradley and Gavin Lawrence, photo by Dan Norman) 
Former Guthrie Resident Director Risa Brainin returns to direct this piece, and brings out all of the humor, wit, and energy of the script. The story flies along at a great pace, bookended by direct audience address by our hero, Detective Poirot. Making his Guthrie debut, Andrew May is an absolute delight as Poirot. This is only my second experience* with this iconic character so I don't have any preconceived ideas of how he should be, but I found Andrew to be utterly charming, moreso the more flustered Poirot gets. The other Guthrie newcomer, Robert Johansen, is unrecognizable in two roles - the haughty hotel waiter and the put-upon train conductor. The rest of this oddball group of characters is populated by #TCTheater favorites, and the great thing about this script is that they all play an equal role and make fun, interesting, often quirky character choices. Our suspects are:
  • Michelle Barber as the Russian Princess Dragomiroff, who doesn't suffer fools
  • Katie Bradley as the elegant Hungarian Countess Andrenyi, also a physician who assists Poirot in his investigation (and turns his head)
  • China Brickey as an English nanny returning from an assignment, who has struck up a secret romance with one of the other passengers
  • Understudy Emily Gunyou Halaas as the prim and proper Swedish missionary
  • Peter Christian Hansen as both the Scottish object of the nanny's affections and an American mobster type (because why have one PCH with a fun accent when you can have two?)
  • Gavin Lawrence as Poirot's friend and confidant who runs the train
  • Tyler Michaels King as the American mobster's clean-cut assistant
  • Sally Wingert as the flirtatious and much married American, doing her best worst Minnesota accent
who (in this dreamy cast) done it? (photo by Dan Norman)

The story begins in the dining room of a posh hotel just before boarding, with gorgeous art deco walls rising elegantly to the ceiling. When we board the train, the back wall is removed to reveal the lush dining car. As if that reveal isn't thrilling enough, the dining car smoothly moves to one side as the next car is revealed - a sleeping car with three separate compartments. Behind them we can see the passageway through the car, and windows looking out on snow-capped mountains. The ingenious design and staging allows us to follow the action from one sleeping compartment to another, to the dining room, to an observation car, and more. Sound and lighting design seamlessly complement the set and storytelling, and the '30s period costumes (including outerwear!) are stunning and character revealing. (Scenic design by Rob Koharchick, sound design and composition by Michael Keck, lighting design by Michael Klaers, and costume design by Devon Painter.)

Murder on the Orient Express is a surefire crowd-pleaser - a familiar story in a fresh new adaptation brought to life by an incredibly talented cast, each of which is a joy to watch. It's like a fun summer popcorn movie, but better - it's live every night! Or rather, every night until July 2.

*To read a review from an Agatha Christie superfan, check out what my friend and fellow Twin Cities Theater Blogger Rob at The Stages of MN had to say about the show.