Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Men on Boats
Dame Agatha Christie's The Hollow premiered in London on February 10, 1951, based on her 1946 novel by the same name (one of sixty-six novels she wrote along with numerous collections of short stories and seven plays, one of which–The Mousetrap–was the world's longest running play until it became a victim of COVID-19). As the "Queen of Mystery," her "whodunits" have sold more than two billion copies. The reasons are certainly many that she continues to be so popular. This outstanding, not-to-be-missed production of one of her lesser-known works illustrates at least three reasons.
Beyond just a "whodunit" murder mystery, The Hollow fits other mystery categories that make it a winner. First, it is a "country house" mystery, with everything occurring in an isolated setting–usually in the middle of nowhere, in this case in a country estate (The Hollow) eighteen miles from London. Scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti and properties designer Karen Leonard have created the exquisite garden room of Sir Henry and Lady Angkatell's country manor, so inviting with hundreds of 1947-vintage touches that one wants to step onstage and explore more closely the built-in bookcase with its many volumes and tchotchkes, the lush garden peeping in from the slightly open front door in the draped entry way, or the many treasures of plates and pictures on the wall-papered walls. Becky Bodurtha's costumes and wigs are a show unto themselves as the aristocratic members and their servants parade time and again in head-to-toe outfits that could have been on the covers of a 1947 fashion magazine.
Spense Matubang's lighting beautifully documents the changes of day and night during the weekend's events, playing particularly important roles in both dappled and dramatic shadows to accentuate the story. The setting of time is further enhanced by the 1940s music that often projects from a small table radio, with sound designer George Psarras also providing appropriate aural surprises along the way to make the night a little more scary or a murder quite a bit more real. And just to be sure the setting is totally authentic, Kimberly Mohne Hill has done an incredible job in helping the entire cast speak with English accents and dialects that almost provide the entire production the lilt of being a musical.
Second reason is that the The Hollow can also be categorized as "a closed circle mystery," meaning all possible suspects have been introduced prior to the actual crime occurring. As is typical of the Dame's stories, we meet, one by one in the first act, the hosts and the guests of this weekend in the country, during which our own first mystery is trying to determine who will be the inevitable victim. The manor's full-time residents are an elder but chipper Sir Henry Angkatell (Ken Boswell), who just happens to own a large collector of revolvers (but of course), and Lady Lucy Angkatell (Karen DeHart), an absent-minded, always happy soul who has run-ins with moles and lobsters. The playwright gives Lucy the best comic lines of the evening, and Ms. DeHart delivers each with delicious, bright-eyed aplomb.
Residing also at the manor are long-serving, loyal butler Gudgeon and sometimes-silly and always curious maid-in-training Doris (Erin Southard). Each time Tom Gough's Gudgeon makes his formal appearance, with pronouncements given with little emotion, inserted pauses between words, and a voice worthy of a stadium's announcer, the audience cannot help but laugh appreciatively. With just a raised eyebrow, a side glance, or a "humph" type of cough, his few-worded Gudgeon says so much.
As the guests arrive and we get to know each, gossip between any two about a third is sprinkled generously into the script. Romances present and past–secret to some and suspected/known to others–reveal themselves little by little. Past grudges, present conflicts, and new revelations are politely peppered into conversations, giving us in the audience ammunition to wonder both who will be the victim and who will be possible perpetrators of whatever crime emerges.
Midge Harvey (Alycia Adame) works in a London dress shop and is the "poor cousin" among this group who are mostly all related. She has a history of longing for Cousin Edward (Kyle Dayrit), who is low-key in nature, speaking in a near monotone–until he doesn't. Edward has feelings for Cousin Henrietta (Anne Yumi Kobori), a sculptor of abstract art who is having an affair with the deep-voiced Dr. John Cristow (Damian Vega), with his perfectly coiffed hair. John seems at times barely to tolerate his animated, a bit-rattle-brained, but big-smiling wife Gerda (Caitlin Lawrence Papp), who dresses like she is a walking flower garden. Dr. John is particularly surprised and aroused by a sudden, uninvited fellow guest–Hollywood film star Veronica Craye (Laura Domingo). Theirs is a history that quickly adds to the spider web of intertwining relationships that for the most part are invisible–or are they?
With the combined efforts of playwright and director, each of these ten has at least one moment to be in the spotlight to display both the attractive and the possible shadow sides of their characters. All could be innocent; all could probably be guilty as hell–all except the victim, of course. Given all the revealed, background gossip and the actual observations we make during that first evening, most could probably be the eventual victim of someone else's jealousy, spurned love, or personality clash.
The third category of murder mystery that makes The Hollow so splendid of a play is that of a "cosy mystery ("cosy" with the English spelling). "Cosy" mysteries are not too gruesome or shocking. They are more gentle and genteel, with their eventual solution making sense and with the ending even often having some aspect of justice done. As in every Christie tale, an astute inspector and usually a bumbling but very likeable assistant show up to unravel all the clues and help us as audience to see and believe the outcome. As the Inspector, Patricia Tyler is fabulously all-business and all-logic while not being afraid to be cautiously friendly and to see and show glimpses of humor as the events unfold around her. The role of her sidekick, Sergeant Penny, provides Andre Leben with plenty of ammunition to add his own brand of comedy in between continuous note-taking and clue-unraveling.
If one is looking for an evening that is non-taxing in its content, light-hearted in nature, justified in an ending also a bit happy in nature, and jam-packed throughout with earned chuckles, what better avenue is there than a murder mystery like The Hollow by the master herself, Agatha Christie? That is especially true in this thoroughly enjoyable, highly recommended production by City Lights Theater Company.
The Hollow runs through March 6, 2022, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. 2nd Street, San Jose CA. Patrons must show proof of full vaccination and must wear masks at all times inside the theater. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org.