Monday, November 20, 2023

"The Secret of Chimney Manor" at Theatre in the Round

The #TCTheater Agatha Christaissance continues with a new adaptation of one of her novels. But to be fair, Theatre in the Round has been doing Agatha Christie plays long before it recently became en vogue. Playwright Todd Olson has adapted the 1925 novel The Secret of Chimneys in this world premiere new play, called The Secret of Chimney Manor (perhaps to clarify that the Chimneys of the novel refers to an English country estate, not the architectural structures). There are a lot of characters in this story, and a lot of subplots, but it all comes together by the end. And along the way there is humor, as well as strong performances by the 12-person cast (many of them playing multiple characters). TRP Agatha Christie plays are popular, so act fast if you want to catch this one before it closes on December 17 (or sells out).

I couldn't possibly begin to describe the plot of this play, since at intermission I felt about as befuddled as poor Lady Caterham, owner of the Manor. Our protagonist is a man called Anthony Cade, who, whilst leading a tour group in South Africa, agrees to help out a friend by delivering a manuscript to a publisher in London, and a bundle of incriminating letters to a lady at Chimney Manor. This leads him to that estate, and from there many more characters and plot points are piled on - there's a succession problem in the fictional country of Herzoslovakia, a jewel theft, a murder, a wealthy Lady and her flirtatious daughter, several detectives from various countries, and hidden passages. The first act is very exposition-heavy and perhaps could have been laid out better, although I don't know how with all of these plot points to cover. Perhaps a diagram in the program would be helpful. But if you hang in there, it all comes together in a satisfying way in the second act.

Lady Caterham (Kristen Mathison) and her daughter
Bundle (Hailey Zeissler, photo by Emily Fell)
Director L. Robert Westeen cites modern day mysteries like Knives Out as inspiration, and it definitely has that feel, in the claustrophobic nature of many visitors to the house being unable to leave, and in the oddball characters who are all suspicious in some way. Highlights in the cast include Seamus Foley as the amiable Anthony Cade, Emily Jabas as his love interest and partner, Erik Steen as the Scotland Yard detective Superintendent Battle who teams up with him to solve the mysteries (and appears in several more of Christie's novels), Luke Langfeldt as a mysterious Frenchman (with an accent that makes me miss Emily in Paris), Kristen Mathison as the always slightly confused Lady Caterham, Hailey Zeissler as her daughter Bundle who is thrilled by all of the excitement, and Clare Boyd as an officious servant.

Seamus Foley and Erik Steen (photo by Emily Fell)
The story takes place in multiple locations and
countries, all represented on the in-the-round space with interchangeable furniture and several short columns. Set pieces are moved around and rearranged frequently, often using the columns as a base for tables, which leads to some clunky scene transitions. The windows of the manor surround the space and are lit up at key moments, and roses on vines curl around the posts (which turns out to be not just an aesthetic choice, but an important plot point). Characters are dressed in period and character appropriate clothing. (Set design by Madeline Achen and costume design by Dab Murphy.)

This isn't my favorite of the several Agatha Christie plays I've seen in recent years, and doesn't seem as tightly plotted, but rather a bunch of meandering threads that eventually are knit together into an ending. But it includes many of the same delightful elements - clues and red herrings, people who aren't who we think they are, and a smart detective to figure it all out and explain it to everyone.

The Secret of Chimney Manor continues through December 17 at the oldest theater in Minneapolis - Theatre in the Round in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.