Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Both plays are brief, even as one-acts go, the entire evening clocking in at barely 90 minutes, including a comfortable intermission between the two tales. The Wasp's Nest dates back to 1928 when it was published as a short story in the London Daily Mail. Christie adopted it into a play that, in June of 1937, was broadcast over the BBC television service. At the time that service only could reach viewers in London, and it must surely have been among the very first such works aired on television anywhere. It was also the only instance of Christie adapting one of her works for television, a media she did not favor. The Rats' origin is more obscure, though apparently it had been produced as a radio or audio play at some point. The scripts for both plays, along with a third, The Patient, were collectively published in 2019 under the title Rule of Thumb.
Austene Van has directed these two playettes (if that is a word) with an appreciation for the arch narratives and dated conversational styles, so there is a spirit of having fun with the material while still showing respect for the sharp intelligence that created it. She also manages to maintain a sense of uncertainty.
I promise to refrain from any spoilers but can say that, in The Rats, a pair of adulterous lovers, Sandra and David, are each asked up to the apartment of an acquaintance, each given a different pretext, only to find the apartment's residents are not present. Two other people pass in and out, a simpering woman named Jennifer who is a friend of the absent hosts and also acquainted with Sandra, and a creepy man named Alec whose knows both Sandra and David, though the nature of their relationship is hazy. None of them are people I would care to spend time with. My favorite character is a caged bird we never see, who emits delightful chirping (Jeff Bailey did the excellent sound design) that confirms its presence. At least I was certain that sweet bird wasn't up to no good. In the end, in Christie's classic manner, everything that transpires is brought to make sense, and the meaning of the brief title is made clear.
Both of these plays are enjoyable baubles. Because of their brevity, neither allows for anything remotely like a complex plot or fully formed characters to develop. The characters are broad types and the plot in each amounts to setting up a kind of puzzle, trying to figure out what these people are up to and how murder figures into it. Though I loved the presence of Poirot in The Wasp's Nest, I found The Rats more satisfying only because it conceals the machinations of its plotting more successfully, while in The Wasp's Nest the revelation of the evil scheme depends wholly on Poirot improbably being in just the right place at just the right time to observe every piece of the puzzle.
Part of loving the presence of Poirot in The Wasp's Nest comes from the terrific performance given by Charles Fraser, who seems born to play the role. He conveys the inspector's tendency to pompousness, his eruditeness, and his wit, as well as his gentility, all with a twinkle in his eyes that assures us that his work is his greatest pleasure. Christopher Kehoe is excellent as David and as Charles, two different examples of affluent and arrogant swains. Maggie Cramer is very persuasive as Sandra, exhibiting accelerating nervous tension as she at first suspects and then gradually comes to fully realize there is something greatly amiss about her invitation to have drinks at what turns out to be an empty home (save for that darling bird). Cramer is well matched with Kehoe's David, displaying their slide from passionate lovers to hateful vipers as the truth begins to dawn on them.
Paul LaNave proves again to be a greatly talented and versatile actor, making a mark both as the creepy Alec in The Rats and, in a very different key, the jilted fiancé Claud in The Wasp's Nest. Tara Borman has the challenge of playing the two characters that are least developed, Jennifer in Rats and Nina in Wasp's, but injects life into both portrayals, and in the former suggests a woman who uses her inanely cheerful demeanor to mask her snide verbal assaults.
If the plays are modest fare, you wouldn't guess that from the physical production. Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm has designed lovely, period-appropriate costumes for each of the tales, post-World War II sophistication for The Rats and an Edwardian look for The Wasp's Nest. Kathy Maxwell's lighting hones in on characters in ways that heighten the sense of intrigue. Justin Hooper's realistic sets are visually arresting. The Rats apartment is decorated in a manner that was stylish in 1950, while the garden at Charles' estate bursts with an eye-popping abundance of plants and flowers, and an elegance that harkens back to early in the century. One small point gnawed at me–in one scene a telephone is used, one that looks very period appropriate–but it has no cord. Or course, all phones had cords at that time. Especially in a mystery, as we are rather prepped to notice details for any kind of clue, details matter.
In a way these mystery stories, even though they revolve around people bent on doing evil deeds, are an escape from the social upheavals, environmental chaos, and political strife that surround us. Theatre that deals with those weighty concerns is important, and I am always grateful for it. But sometimes a night (or matinee) off is a welcome, even necessary, tonic. If you are a fan of Agatha Christie, or simply of clever mystery stories, or merely well-staged, brightly performed plays that spark you to think and prompt you to laughter, Yellow Tree is serving up just the thing.
The Rats and The Wasp's Nest continue through October 29, 2023, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo, MN 55369. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Playwright: Agatha Christie; Director: Austene Van; Set Design: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Props Design: Brandt Roberts; Intimacy/Fight Director: Jason Ballweber; Stage Manager: Samantha Smith; Assistant Director & Assistant Stage Manager: Ericka Soukup; Production Manager: Brandon Raghu.
Cast: Tara Borman (Jennifer Brice/Nina Bellamy), Maggie Cramer (Sandra), Charles Fraser (Hercule Poirot), Christopher (Kehoe (David/Charles), Paul LaNave (Alec/Claud). Logo