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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Murder on the Orient Express
Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds

The Cast
Photo by Christian Pizzirani
For many of us, there is nothing better than curling up in a comfy chair and opening the first page of an Agatha Christie novel to see what devilish deed Hercule Poirot will solve this time. Perhaps the only thing better is to see all the suspense, speculation, and the final surprise announcement of guilt play out live before us. That is especially true for Palo Alto Players' production of Ken Ludwig's 2017 stage adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 Murder on the Orient Express in which magnificently maneuvered scenic elements, wonderfully split-second-timed direction, and a fabulously caricatured cast combine fun and funny with murder and mystery.

Having just solved his latest, trying case in Syria involving "an army officer, a beautiful girl, and a bad check" that "did not end well," Monsieur Poirot is in Istanbul for a few days of winter vacation in 1934, only to be called back to the home office in London to handle an emergency. The only way to get there is on the famed Orient Express, "the greatest train company in the entire world," so says his old friend and company manager, Monsieur Bouc, who offers Poirot his private cabin on the totally sold-out train. As he meets the other passengers in his car–passengers with accents from Russia, Sweden, Scotland, Hungary, Germany, England, and America and with titles like Countess, Colonel, and Princess–Poirot tells his friend Bouc, "I sense something is wrong, that there is tension ... someone does not fit in ... I am frightened."

We too know something is amiss. After all, this is an Agatha Christie creation which means there is definitely a planned murder afoot, with one of the ten on the train (not including Poirot, of course) to be killed and one to be the killer. Also, before the lights and curtain came up, we heard voices from a scene play out in the dark where a little girl was being put to bed by her parents and nanny, only to scream in evident terror as she was abducted from her bed by a stranger. It does not take a world-famous detective to deduce that the girl's misfortune is somehow going to be connected to whatever is soon to happen on this train.

And even as the train leaves Istanbul, there are clues that there are reasons to wonder with suspicion about the various passengers. One claims to be receiving letters of death threats and seeks help from the famous detective on board. A woman slaps another passenger for being too fresh and suggestive with her. One irritates the other sleepy passengers to no end with her midnight singing of "Alexander's Ragtime Band." We hear a nervous young woman tell her companion, "I'm frightened; we shouldn't be doing this." And then there are the repeated reports of a second conductor rushing through the narrow corridors on a train that in fact has only one conductor–a supposed conductor whom one female passenger wakes up to find in her room.

And all this happens before the Christie-required, middle-of-the-night murder–discovered the next morning and setting Poirot into action, where interviews and a mountain of clues begin to mound into a tall pile of possible suspects.

Michael Champlin could hardly be more perfect as the embodiment of the neatly dressed, purse-lipped, somewhat dandified Hercule Poirot–a character probably most audience members already feel they personally know through film and television depictions by a long line of actors including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Tony Randall, Orson Wells, and John Malkovich. His twitching of the famous, trademark mustache; his exacting pronunciation of words in Belgian French; his hilarious knee-raised, funny-armed run through the corridors; and his penchant to flirt with subtle and polite airs around a beautiful woman–all these and more are signs that we are watching on this stage a Poirot whom we fondly recognize.

Equally delightful and stage-commanding is Zachary Vaughn-Munck as Monsieur Bouc, the big-hearted train manager whose undying admiration of his fellow Belgian friend Poirot is genuine, often to the point of comical. His range of "eeks" and "ahhs" are only outmatched by grand and gigantic gestures as he swoops in to soothe a passenger's complaint or to quash a passenger's sudden rudeness. His always attentive sidekick and the train's conductor with lovely French accent and manners is Michel (Patrick Rivera), whom we first meet as a rushing, bumbling, hotel waiter with the kind of 'héhéhé, 'hon-hon-hon' laugh often used to mimic the French.

And then there are the passengers, each worthy of a paragraphed description of their oddities, bombastic manners, and/or stereotypical depictions of national origin. Kyle Dayrit bursts into any scene his Samuel Ratchett populates as a rude, demanding, loud-mouthed American importer/exporter–one who wrongly believes his offers of big cash can get Poirot to be his onboard bodyguard of sorts. His secretary, Hector MacQueen, is quite his opposite, with Brandon Silberstein ludicrously embodying the guy who seems to run into every doorway he enters or person he passes, who stutters just enough to announce his nervous nature, and who is clearly naïve about most of what is happening around him.

Linda Piccone does not miss a chance to display the royal airs of the now-exiled Princess Dragomiroff, who is quick to make her opinion known but also shows sympathy for those even less fortunate than she, like her companion, a prone-to-fright-and-tears Greta Ohlsson. Brigitte Losey's German Greta is a returning missionary from Africa, who is on her knees praying about as often as she is in any other position–a woman "married to God" and says Jesus showed up in her garden to tell her to help the babies in Africa.

In no way like Greta, Helen Hubbard (Patty Reinhart) is a Chicagoan who seems to thrive in the spotlight of any conversation she engages in with a voice piercingly loud and a constant demand for immediate attention. Her flirting eyes quickly target the cute conductor Michel, with no care in the world that her fourth husband is not joining her on this trip. Also traveling without her husband is Countess Andrenyi (April Culver), a physician now quite Hungarian but with a background much humbler than Countess and maybe not natively from where her heavy accent points.

The final two passengers–and thus final two either victims or suspects–are the quick-to-anger Scot named Colonel Arbuthnot (Will Livingston), who is extremely protective in a chauvinistic manner of the woman traveling with him, the English Mary Debenham (Michelle Skinner), who appears always nervous as if looking over her shoulder for someone/something.

With that host of travelers with accents from all over the Western world (big kudos to dialect coach, Brennah Kemmerly), director Katie O'Bryon Champlin has a heyday sending people scurrying in and out of cabin doors, prowling through narrow hallways, piling into crowded quarters, and readying themselves for the big reveal where someone among them is going to named as the killer of the one (or maybe two?) victims.

What truly sets this PA Players production apart as a fast-moving, ever-changing set of circumstances and events is a scenic design that is set in big-movement motion time and again through the quick and efficient strength of a deck crew of four (Hanna Lubinsky, Anton Popowitz, Neil Sahami, Amiah 'Fern' Woertink). Large scenic pieces designed by Kevin Davies swing in, out, and around to reveal a train's dining car, sleeping quarters interiors, and a hallway of doors. Kevin Davies has also filled each setting with many detailed properties that include a host of what may be damning clues in solving the murderous mystery.

The peculiarities and personalities of this eclectic list of passengers, of the train's crew, and of Poirot himself are amplified by the array of colorful, period, and internationally revealing costumes and hairstyles designed by Lisa Claybaugh. Lighting by Edward Hunter heightens the the suspense, the specter, and the all important surprises in this whodunit, while Jeff Grafton's design creativity and skills surrounds us with the sounds of a train's engines, startles us with a scream or shot, and puts us in the mood of the times with music of the era.

Palo Alto Players' Murder on the Orient Express is a two-hour, twenty-minute (plus intermission) guaranteed summer frolic full of guessing who did what, an appropriate one for the whole family and even for those of us who walk in already knowing the outcome due to the popularity of the book, the films (two), and at least two television versions over the years.

Murder on the Orient Express runs through June 30, 2024, at Palo Alto Players, Woodside Performing Arts Center, 199 Churchill Avenue, Woodside CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 650-329-0891.