Thursday, October 5, 2023

"The Rats & The Wasp's Nest" at Yellow Tree Theatre

About halfway through the first of a pair of one-act Agatha Christie mystery plays at Yellow Tree Theatre, it started to seem familiar. At intermission I checked (which is much more reliable than my memory) and found that I had indeed seen these two plays before. They were part of a triptych of plays at Park Square Theatre in 2019 called Agatha Christie: Rule of Thumb. The director of that piece, Austene Van, has brought two of these plays to Yellow Tree Theatre, of which she is now the Artistic Director, to begin their 16th season in their warm and cozy space in a strip mall in Osseo. Each one of these plays is under 45 minutes long, and both are wonderful examples of tight and concise mystery storytelling. It's like a mini Agatha Christie repertoire festival, but it only takes you less than 90 minutes on one night to see the shows. You will be rewarded by great performances in these murder stories that are more light and funny than dark and scary. A perfect way to ease into October (continuing through October 29).

Both plays feature romantic entanglements and, of course, murder - one a murder that has happened, the other a murder that is about to happen. In The Rats, a couple having an affair are set up to make it look like they committed murder, as we watch them slowly unravel the scheme. In The Wasp's Nest, one of Christie's most famous characters Hercule Poirot (currently being played on screen by Kenneth Branagh) attempts to stop a murder before it happens. Because only the famous Detective Poirot is smart enough to solve a murder that hasn't happened yet! But maybe he's not the only one; keep your wits about you during intermission and you may get to solve a crime too.

Tara Borman, Christopher Kehoe, and Maggie Cramer
(photo by Tom Wallace)
The Rats plays like a '50s noir black and white film, even including opening credits (with previews for the rest of Yellow Tree's season) and closing credits projected like an old-timey movie film. The sets and costumes are all in shades of black, white, and gray, and the actors perform in that exaggerated movie style, which is great fun to watch. Maggie Cramer and Christopher Kehoe play the couple, going from loving and passionate to despising each other as these rats get caught in a trap. Tara Borman is a nosy neighbor type, with Paul LaNave as the mysterious man who seems a little too involved. 

Charles Fraser and Christopher Kehoe
(photo by Tom Wallace)
The Wasp's Nest takes us back to the early 20th Century for another story of an affair, with Christopher, Tara, and Paul joined by Charles Fraser as Hercule Poirot in a delightful performance. Just listening to him say "murder" and "murderer" in his charming Belgian accent, which he does often (drinking game?) is worth the price of admission alone. Everyone in this small but talented cast is committed to the style of each piece, and the three who are in both plays manage to create distinct characters from one to the next.

The chic mid-century modern apartment set of the first act transforms during intermission into a flowery garden, even the lighting shifts from cool to warm. Both plays utilize the French doors at the back of the stage that open onto a terrace, or display silhouettes. The costumes beautifully reflect the two different periods, highlighted by the smashing '50s black and white dresses. (Scenic design by Justin Hooper, lighting design by Kathy Maxwell, costume design by Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm).

The Rats & The Wasp's Nest is a perfectly charming evening of classic mystery done in classic movie style that's fun to watch on stage. See it now through the end of October, and make plans for the rest of Yellow Tree's season, which includes a holiday comedy (natch), a play by one of my favorite playwrights Lauren Gunderson, and the story of Josephine Baker.