Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Somehow, I'd managed to have none of those prior experiences and found my way to Murder on the Orient Express blissfully ignorant of how the obscure clues and sundry backgrounds of the passengers on the fabled train would coalesce in the mind of Hercule Poirot, Christie's invented genius among detectives, and result in a solution to a puzzling murder. Two things I felt confident about: that Monsieur Poirot would solve the case, and that if I tried to guess the solution, I would be wrong. Both of those predictions came to pass.
Christie's premise is a work of genius. It is 1934, the age of elegant train travel, and the most elegant of all, the Orient Express, is departing from Istanbul and headed for Paris. The prestige of this transit allows Christie to place a colorful assortment of characters, most of them well off, of a variety of nationalities. One of these is a nasty businessman, Samuel Ratchett, who seems to be in the kind of business that involves sending out couriers to deliver messages from the barrel of a pistol. Ratchett has received threatening notes and when he recognizes the great detective Hercule Poirot on board, he tries to hire him to ferret out the source of these threats. Poirot, exhausted after solving a case in Syria and taking an immediate dislike to Ratchet, declines.
Their first night out, the train becomes snowbound in the mountains of Yugoslavia. The conductor is unable to make radio contact to get help. In the morning, Ratchet is found stabbed to death in his compartment. There are no footprints in the snow around the immobile train, meaning no one has boarded or left. Someone still on the train murdered Ratchet. With no hope of police arriving any time soon, Poirot agrees to study the crime scene, the corpse, the evidence and clues, and to interview each passenger to learn who killed Ratchet.
As a playwright, Ludwig is primarily known for comedies and this rendition of Murder on the Orient Express quite often goes for laughs, mostly nailing them while not sacrificing the enticement of a well-plotted whodunit. Many of the laughs stem from the eccentricities of the characters, others give the well-worn conventions of the mystery genre a ribbing, but not at the expense of maintaining a cracking good, suspenseful yarn. While I can't guarantee it, I'd wager that between the comic elements imbedded throughout the play, Risa Brainin's whip-smacked direction that never leaves an opening for us to ponder too deeply on one twist of plot before striking out on the next, and stunning design work–by Rob Koharchik (sets), Devon Painter (costumes), Michael Klaers (lighting), Michael Keck (sound and original music), and Miko Simmons (projections)–those who already know how the mystery is resolved will still have a bloody good time. And that's even before accounting for some wonderful performances from a cast full of aces.
Andrew May is our Hercule Poirot, the epitome of calm surrounded by a storm. May is new to the Guthrie and, as far as I can tell, to Minnesota stages, but has extensive experience elsewhere and superbly creates the wry, witty center around which the more extravagant characters revolve. Sally Wingert is terrific as Helen Hubbard, a crass, wise-cracking, much-married American, the type that gives American tourists a bad name abroad. She delivers lines with arch decadence, such as when telling one of the men who has caught her eye that he reminds her of one of her husbands, and he asks her "Which one?" she responds, "The next one." Peter Christian Hansen is a convincing brute as Ratchet, and fortunately–as Ratchet is killed off early on–doubles up as Colonel Arbuthnot, a British military man tenderly romantic toward the woman with whom he is travelling, but brusquely defensive when suspicions begin to arise.
China Brickey conveys brave determination as Mary Debenham, a governess and the object of the Colonel's ardor. Tyler Michaels King is perfectly in sync with the role of Ratchet's secretary, Hector MacQueen: wholesome, officious, and a bit flustered by his crass employer's demands, though always delivering on those demands. Michelle Barber is a delight as a haughty Russian princess, a refugee from the Bolsheviks who has no intention of being mistaken for a refugee. Traveling with the princess is Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish missionary given to hysterics, played with comic aplomb by Jane Froiland. Katie Bradley as a Hungarian countess whose coy attentions to Poirot make him "wish I was young again", Robert Johansen as the put-upon train conductor Michel, and Gavin Lawrence as Monsieur Bouc, a director of the train company as well as an old friend of Poirot's, deliver top draw performances as well.
As mentioned, Koharchik has done a masterful job as set designer, cleverly setting out spaces as the train's dining cars and a trio of adjoining sleeper compartments, all bearing the ornate decoration of its era, allowing the sense of confinement present on a railroad car, while providing the space needed for the scenes to play out. The full atmosphere is created by the combination of sets with Simmons' projections, allowing us to see the train pulling away from its platform in Budapest, driving on through the falling snow, and then imprisoned by the ever-rising drifts around it. Painter's lavish costumes have great fun with everything from a Russian princess' orientalist gown to the louche wardrobe of an American divorcee, the drastically prim garb of a Nordic missionary, and the well-tailored gentlemen, each in their unique variations. Klaers' lighting depicts the Orient Express' passage through the dark of night and back into daylight–and provides a fantastic tableau to bring down the curtain on the first act. Keck's sound design delivers all the auditory features one expects of train travel.
At the end, Poirot is placed in the position of having to make a very difficult decision, one that weighs thorny questions of "What constitutes justice?" and "Is the law always the best arbiter between right and wrong?" He makes his decision, though even then, when the curtain comes down there is an element of doubt–great fodder for conversation on the ride home.
For the most part, Murder on the Orient Express is a wonderfully good time, a well-mapped mystery from a master of the form, teased out with laughter and lightness by Ludwig's script. By the way, Ludwig was recruited by the Agatha Christie estate to create this stage version of work. Surely, the estate knew they were bringing in a writer of comedies to take on the task, and they chose one who was up to the challenge, while still showing keen respect for the source material. A ride on this Orient Express, with its engrossing mystery and frothy comedy, is a perfect excursion for the spring season.
Murder on the Orient Express runs through July 2, 2023, at Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $31 to $79. Seniors (65+), College Students (with ID) - $3 - $6 off per ticket. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday evenings; $25 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Ken Ludwig, adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie; Director: Risa Brainin; Scenic Design: Rob Koharchik; Costume Design: Devon Painter; Lighting Design: Michael Klaers; Sound Design/Composer: Michael Keck; Projection Design: Miko Simmons; Vocal Coach: Megan Burns; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Intimacy: Alessandra Bongiardina; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Karl Alphonso; Assistant Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Director: Teresa Mock.
Cast: Michelle Barber (Princess Dragomiroff), Katie Bradley (Countess Andrenyi), China Brickey (Mary Debenham), Jane Froiland (Greta Olson), Peter Christian Hansen (Colonel Arbuthnot/Samuel Ratchett), Robert Johansen (Michel/Head Waiter), Gavin Lawrence (Monsieur Bouc), Andrew May (Hercule Poirot), Tyler Michaels King (Hector McQueen), Sally Wingert (Helen Hubbard).