Monday, December 9, 2013
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, Austin Playhouse, November 22 - December 22, 2013
by Michael Meigs
You've arrived at an estate on an otherwise uninhabited island somewhere off the English coast along with nine strangers. Your host hasn't shown up. The weather has been steadily deteriorating. You spend the first hours tentatively making the acquaintance of this odd collection of mostly upper middle class individuals. The polite tedium is shattered when a voice from the next room sternly names each of you and accuses each of homicide.
Ten lines of doggerel are framed above the fireplace, jovial descriptions of death. Ten little Indian figures sit on the mantlepiece. Unnerving, what?
Then the storm closes in over the wild seascape, isolating you for real. There's no telephone. And an unseen homicidal maniac begins killing. A poisoned drink; a hypodermic; an bloodied ax; a fall over a precipice into the sea. Who's next? And who's doing this?
Dame Agatha Christie built a huge following in the first half of the twentieth century for her murder mysteries -- not only those featuring Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, but also a series of cleverly plotted murder puzzles. She didn't invent the oh-so-British detective story, but she came close to perfecting that peculiar form.
You don't see many of her novels in the United States any more but she remains popular in Europe. I assume that the Brits are still devotees; I know that the paperback racks in Germany are full of translations of her books.
The typical Christie murder puzzle is a contest with the reader, a bit like a crossword puzzle -- of the sort that the New York Times used to feature and perhaps the Times of London still does. You curl up in your comfortable armchair by the fire with your text and your clues (oops, 'clews') and pick your favorite suspect. Or you get a ticket to the Austin Playhouse production playing at Highland Mall until December 22 and live Christie's menacing world through six scenes in three acts over one accelerating, menacing weekend.
Christie teases with threats of murder but she's really enticing you with comfort food. The cast is a familiar gallery of types and rogues: a careless playboy (Stephen Mercantel), a stern moralistic spinster (Bernadette Nason), a vigorous military officer with derring-do (Brian Coughlin) and a doddering old general (Dirk van Allen), a Harley Street physician (Craig Kanne), a stuffy judge (Steve Shearer), a working-class policeman (Michael Stuart), a secretary (Hildreth England) and a pair of serio-comic servants (Laura Walberg and Christopher Loveless). Familiar characters and familiar Austin Playhouse faces accompany you through the highly stylized plot.
Director Laura Toner does a pretty good job of differentiating them and moving them around, even though with a cast of that size the relatively bare single set does feel a bit like the waiting room at Victoria station. Suddenly a voice of doom thunders from the next room, rapidly delivering a list of names and accusations. The characters freeze in place about the stage. This occurs before we've quite sorted out this menagerie, so we're initially confused by the charges that turn out to have been delivered by a platter on the grammophone.
How did they all get here in the first place? Exposition is ample and talky. Each was misled or enticed into accepting the invitation although the identity of the host (or employer) wasn't entirely clear. If we weren't willing to suspend belief and accept this variation of the old locked-room puzzle, we'd think them a flock of silly geese. And we happily swallow the convention that shortly before receiving the fatal dose/blow/shot/chop/push, each character is going to deliver a revelation, perhaps a confession, that elucidates the motivation of the invisible justicer.
Read more at Central Texas Live Theatre. . . .