The Queen of mystery, Agatha Christie's first play The Mousetrap premiered in London's West End in 1952 and, much to Christie's surprise (she only gave it an eight month run) has been running non-stop ever since. The reason? It is a meticulously crafted piece of theatre and mystery with colorful characters, a simple story and great, twist ending.
Northlight Theatre in Skokie has selected a show that is somewhat out of their usual genre of almost strictly premieres of new works fresh from New York (not always successful with the box office) and, as a result, has a sold-out show with an extended run and audiences who cannot get enough. What was refreshing to me is that the Sunday evening audience consisted of many younger patrons than you usually see at a classic drama.
For those who do not know the story (I did not and have never read or seen this show) it comes from an Agatha Christie short story which concerns a murder committed by a homicidal maniac who has a fascination with the song Three Blind Mice (which was the original title of the play but had to be changed because of an existing story by the same name).
The time is 1952 and the location is an estate owned by Giles and Mollie Ralston named Monkswell Manor located in East Midlands, England where a blizzard is raging and 5 guests have come to stay and are trapped. Being Agatha Christie characters each guest has a back story and secrets which make them all suspects in the murder. The young Sargent Trotter arrives on skies to inform everyone that the murderer is on the loose and planning on committing more murders at Monkswell Manor and they are all in danger. As he is searching the estate we hear the tune of "Three Blind Mice" being played on a piano in another room when the lights switch out and the murderer kills on of the guests, Mrs. Boyle. The lights come up and Molly Giles, the hostess, screams and the lights go black. Intermission. Then everyone was abuzz in the lobby about who dunnit. At the end of the play traditionally the audience members are asked to not reveal who dunnit so, in keeping with this long standing tradition, neither will I (I am surprised that Northlight does not follow this tradition as to spoil the ending will spoil the show).
Director Jonathan Berry admits that this is his introduction to an Agatha Christie play and, I must admit, he has done a fine job at the helm and assembled a mostly strong cast. He has a keen grasp on the quick pacing, musicality of the script, suspense and Christie's brittle humor. I was genuinely pleased to see Berry's work outside of the style of work he is known for (having admired his consistently great work with Griffith Theatre over the years).
Where he falls short however is making certain his entire cast can realistically convey the British dialect, (inconsistency among most of the cast plagued the production throughout the evening). I would just get into the world of the play only to be thrown out by mispronounced words or, even worse, the same word being pronounced two different ways (bean then ben, aganst then against). Dialect Coach Eva Breneman needed to be more of a task-mistress on this with the actors as it is imperative for the audience to allow themselves to be lured into the mousetrap. This was frustrating as it destroyed the credibility of the story and location when so much effort toward detail had gone into the other areas of the production and by correcting this one small thing would have made this a really great production.
The standout performances in this Mousetrap are Joe Dempsey's Mr. Paravicini (a really fine comic and creepy turn), Lindsey Pearlman as Miss Casewell (pitch-perfect in capturing the English eccentricities & comic timing) and the superb Greg Matthew Anderson as Sargent Trotter (in one of the best performances I have seen him give). Patrick Clear's Major Metcalf was completely believable, at ease and the role fit him as a second skin. Laura Fisher's Mrs. Boyle had great comedic ability but was marred by inconsistency with the dialect. Cora Vander Broek's Mollie Ralston, owner of Monkswell Manor, was simply superb from start to finish and one of the few to maintain the dialect.
The magnificent set by Jack Magaw was a character in itself and was loaded with great detail and Lee Kenan's Lighting design helped to create the mystery for the story. Izumi Inaba's Costumes were spot-on and true to the era, the original production and Agatha Christie.
The standout performances in this Mousetrap are Joe Dempsey's Mr. Paravicini (a really fine comic and creepy turn), Lindsey Pearlman as Miss Casewell (pitch-perfect in capturing the English eccentricities) and the superb Greg Matthew Anderson as Sargent Trotter (in one of the best performances I have seen him give). Patrick Clear's Major Metcalf was completely believable and at ease and fit him as a second skin. Laura Fisher's Mrs. Boyle had great comedic ability but was marred by inconsistency with the dialect. Cora Vander Broek's Mollie Ralston, owner of Monkswell Manor, was simply superb from start to finish.
There are, however a couple of really poor casting choices which mar what could be a top-notch production. Joey deBettencourt (Christopher Wren, the young and highly strung boy who we are led to believe is the killer) is disappointing as his comic timing was a bit off the evening I saw the show.
The owner of Monkswell Manor Keith Neagle felt too modern and not at ease in a classical play, not at all English and had an accent that gradually faded away as the evening progressed. He lacked classic precision of the rest of the razor-sharp cast.
Even though Noerthlight's Mousetrap has some flaws it is still a seldom-done, very well-realized and mostly executed Chicago production of the only play written by the greatest mystery writer of all times, Agatha Christie, and, after 62 years, still captures the audience in its tight spring.
The Mousetrap runs through December 21, Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, 847.673.6300; northlight.org. For calendar information visit wwwTheatreInChicago.com
Reviewed by James Murray