REVIEW: Murder on the Nile - STAGEStheatre, Fullerton
"...This thrilling ride will have you on the edge of your seat right up until the final shattering climax!"
Agatha Christie has been called the greatest mystery writer of all time, having created a mountain of best-selling thrillers and several wildly popular plays to back up the claim. And in a strong vote of accord, "Murder on the Nile," STAGEStheatre’s current Christie offering, which opened to sell-out crowds two weeks ago, continues through February 10th, Friday and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm (with the exception of this weekend’s Super Bowl Sunday).
Selling more than two billion copies of her books overall, her first 1920 novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” focused on the murder of a rich heiress and introduced readers to one of Christie's most famous recurring characters—Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, featuring the popular Francis L. Sullivan. He received much accolades for his stage work, playing Poirot again in 1930 at London’s Embassy Theatre in the Christie play, “Black Coffee.” Later, he won a Tony Award in 1955 for her play, "Witness for the Prosecution."
“Murder on the Nile” is a 1944 murder mystery play based loosely on her 1937 novel "Death on the Nile." The notable John Anderson chose to portray Captain McNaught in this play before retiring from the stage. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Anderson, his work not only included many stage projects, but scores of movies and TV appearances as well…everything from “Paint Your Wagon” to “Little House on the Prairie.”
"Death on the Nile" (which actually started off with a title of “Moon on the Nile”) did not include Francis L. Sullivan this time around as the eccentric sleuth, Poirot, as Christie was tiring of the role, and had always secretly thought the tall, imposing Sullivan was not what she considered the essence of a great detective. The actor used flamboyance rather than subtlety primarily, so Christie made a decision to eliminate Poirot from her novels.
She instead plugged in a sinister minister type priest called Canon Pennefather to handle the crime solving and end theatrics, and the play eventually became what we now call, “Murder on the Nile.” Said to be one of Christie’s most complex characters, the good Father doesn’t always tell the truth and also seems to have a penchant for young men, but does show the meticulous reasoning of an experienced policeman when it comes to uncovering who committed what crime. Most of the characters have had their names changed from their appearances in the book, “Death on the Nile,” and several of them are even an amalgam consolidation of multiple characters, whittling the entire passenger list to only nine.
The show, directed by Philip Brickey (STAGES’ 2018 futuristic play, “Brain Freeze”), is full of melodrama, subplots, with the usual Charlie Chan-style exposition ending. A bitter love triangle drives the action which features a lot of tell-don't-show action. But, if you like murder mysteries like I do, you will find this a very compelling, highly amusing, and genuinely puzzling Agatha Christie whodunit. Director Brickey and his highly talented thespians are smart enough to play to the strengths of the piece, and the result is a show full of thrills and laughs.
“Murder on the Nile” opens in the observation saloon deck of a paddle steamer called the Luxor, which is cruising down the legendary Nile River in Egypt, and here all of the play's action takes place. Nine passengers board the craft, as I mentioned…but not all will return. The manifest shows, in addition to the Canon, a hodgepodge consortment of unusual characters. There is the hysterical and bigoted older Englishwoman and her wonder-struck niece, who might also qualify as her servant, the malcontented gentleman always lingering in the background, the glamorous society girl who happens to be the Canon’s niece and her handsome new husband, the doctor from a country ruined by Kay's callous father, the thickly-accented French maid and an obsessed but spurned former lover. Quite a charming little group, actually, and at various times, each of them seems quite capable of…muuuuurder (cue hysterical laughing).
To reveal the details of the plot totally would just be unkind, but I can at least provide a synopsis to help prepare you with the soap opera-like shenanigans of its characters. Christie does find creative ways to touch on some astute sociopolitical issues in the piece, by the way, and is not too gauche about it--notably, the relationship between the wealthy and the working class. She offers a few detours into the psyches of the characters that are never explored that deeply, but perhaps that’s her intent. One of the characters, for instance, is a devout student of communism, another tells a sad tale of worker exploitation in his homeland, and the Canon (with a good deal of shadiness himself) has no problem at all blithely giving his rich fellow passengers a guilt complex to fund his charity. It’s a ripe mix of effectively inscrutable creepiness and a perfect setting for mayhem, deceit, theft and murder.
Even more rewarding than the tricky plot is the humor of the play. Certainly, it wasn't all intentional on Christie's part, but the cast does a superb job of making the melodrama amusing without ever letting it turn into camp.
Among the principals are the famous heiress Kay Mostyn (KC Marie Pandell), a rich and portentous young woman who has led a charmed life. Kay has recently married a freeloading opportunist sort named Simon Mostyn (Jason Cook, as the smoothest of British operators in a meritorious performance). The scheming Simon seems to be equal parts model husband and ruthless gold-digger, but adds much color to the cast in personality.
Kay and Simon are of course in love and on their honeymoon, but aren't having a lot of fun because they are being stalked by the third point in the triangle. Jacqueline De Severac (portrayed with much depth by Jessica Taylor Gable) was engaged to Simon before he dumped her for Kay, who had ostensibly been one of "Jackie's" best friends.
But Jackie now has a habit of showing up wherever the couple goes, including aboard the Luxor. While proclaiming that their encounters are entirely coincidental, she's clearly a bitter woman and is bent on shooting one or both of them with her little derringer she keeps tucked in her purse. With those kinds of foreboding threats, Jackie originally is the prime suspect in the murders, but ends up with an airtight alibi. Ms. Gable accomplishes her role in this balancing act particularly well; her acting is splendorous and every word that comes out of her occasionally inebriated anti-hero's mouth is smile-worthy.
Rose London almost stole the show, however, with her portrayal of the snobbish upper-cruster, Miss Ffoliot-Ffoulkes, as the actress delivered scathing put downs and amusing one liners with expert timing. I delighted in her dialogue. Every time she spoke she seemed to be channeling an early, spirited Kathryn Hepburn. Her charming and even tempered niece, Christina Grant, was also played elegantly by Emily Porr. And Bianca Singer as Louise, Kay’s French maid (wonderfully accented), who felt the initial finger-pointing after a body was found, handled her role with just the right touch of vexation.
Carlos David Lopez is the bluntly outspoken and eavesdropping Mr. Smith, who has a few skeletons in his closet as well, namely...he's really a communist-leaning British lord. Mr. Lopez is fascinating in his part. The undaunted, quick-tempered Dr. Bessner is played perfectly by Avi Wilk. Brian Yager has a strong featured role as the autocratic Captain McNaught. And Lawrence Ingalls, in the starring role, gives a gratifying performance as the holidaying Canon who works in perfect counterpoint and leads the makeshift investigation. There’s nothing stereotypical about him; he’s not overly pious, he likes a hard drink, sometimes quite a few, and he sees people for what they really are.
The Steward and head waiter, both roles of few words but with lots of expression, is Andrew Aguilar, who brought a touch of the exotic to the show and also spent a lot of his time carrying bodies and wounded passengers around, and the pesky beadseller just trying to make a buck is Anuar Uribe.
Set Design is by Pat Mannion, Lighting is by Jon Gaw, who is also Technical Director, and Sound Design is handled by Calvin A. Ballard. Costume Design is by Amanda DeMaio with Assist by Rose London. Both do a fine job placing us in the 1930’s with crisply-cut suits and era-appropriate dresses and hairstyles. Stage Manager is the fabulous Sherri Hull with Assist by Brandon Banda. Publicity is Patti Cumby (also the Producer) and Mo Arii. And the Theatre Manager is the ever-present, highly regarded April “Ma” Skinner.
STAGEStheatre once again brings its innovative touch to this deliciously dangerous murder mystery, with brilliant direction, superb acting, thrilling physicality and stunning costumes. The British and French accents were very well done. I would not be surprised if Christie’s novel becomes a classic all over again. The theories, conjectures and suspicions build, as a shocking conspiracy is finally laid bare. And by the end of this thrilling ride, you will be on the edge of your seat right up to the final shattering climax.
“Murder on the Nile,” as directed by Phil Brickey, is a mind-bending mental workout, a delectable evening of detective work on stage, and is showcased to audiences until February 10th with only six performances left. Highly Recommended! Reservations appear to be Sold Out at the moment, but may open up later for additional showings. STAGEStheatre is located at 400 E. Commonwealth in Fullerton. Ticket information is at http://stagesoc.org/