Saturday, March 7, 2020

IRT's 'Murder on the Orient Express' moves smartly on a snow-stalled track

Even people not enamored of detective fiction can get caught up in seat-of-the-pants sleuthing when reading or watching a carefully shaped who-dun-it. It's amateur night, and in the case of "Murder on the Orient Express," the payoff is likely to reward all guesses as to the real perpetrator of the crime.

I hope this doesn't violate spoiler etiquette, or to indicate that an unusual play-within-a-play device is involved — also, a train-stopping snowstorm in 1934 Yugoslavia as the Orient Express travels from Istanbul to Western Europe. The setting, exotic in time and place to today's audiences, is a kind of edge-to-edge red herring, as a cosmopolitan cast of characters is at length revealed to have crucial associations in common.

Andrew May as Agatha Christie's oddball detective hero, Hercule Poirot.
Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of the Agatha Christie mystery, as adapted by Ken Ludwig, rewards all hunches as it concludes. But still, everyone is likely to admire the process that allows Hercule Poirot's ratiocination to succeed. The Belgian detective, a fastidious professional prone to unpredictable flare-ups of temper and a characteristic gasping laugh, has amusing charisma and command to boot as played by Andrew May.

The Orient Express is legendary in the history of passenger railroading. Its luxurious appeal is recreated spectacularly for IRT's OneAmerica Mainstage by Robert M. Koharchik, with the action occurring across several compartments, each moving to a central position on a turntable as needed. The wintry world outside is brilliantly suggested through L.B. Morse's projections and Michael Klaers' lighting. Near the end, staging puts the suspects in isolated spots to illuminate how Poirot fits each piece into the homicide puzzle.

Devon Painter's costumes outfit all characters with an individualizing zest. We are prepared to believe anything about them even before a gangsterish American known as Samuel Ratchett (Ryan Artzberger) is found gruesomely murdered. Risa Brainin has directed the cast to inhabit every eccentricity and soul-defining trait peculiar to each character. Ken Ludwig's farcical gift is a carefully stirred-in sauce, held in check to allow the Christie flair for cat-and-mouse revelation of motive and secrecy to dominate the flavor.

The following assessments are offered on the basis on the show's opening night March 6. The train's
Countess Andrenyi, Poirot, and M. Bouc examine a clue, a stopped pocket watch.
excitable director, functioning as a sidekick for the detective, stands in for the surprise any of us may feel when jobs we are well-prepared to handle are overturned by stunning circumstances. Monsieur Bouc had the requisite brio and bubbling spontaneity in Gavin Lawrence's performance.

As Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham, Ryan Artzberger and Nastacia Guimont displayed the mutual protectiveness typical of couples pursuing a clandestine affair, with an overlay of Scottish volatility in the colonel. Katie Bradley brought mysterious pathos to the role of a medically trained Hungarian countess, and Dale Hodges embodied a more prickly kind of aristocrat — her costume and makeup both marvelous — as a Russian princess in exile, looking as if she could easily step into a more famous role, the rich old lady in Duerrenmatt's "The Visit," another Central European train drama. Her traveling companion, a nervous-Nellie missionary called Greta Ohlsson, had a suitably ingrained touch of caricature in Callie Johnson's performance.

Jennifer Joplin was alluring and brassy as the flamboyant and available American divorcee Helen
The detective has something to tell the entire group of suspects.
Hubbard; Aaron Kirby as  Ratchett's secretary Hector MacQueen vividly occupied the opposite end of the self-assurance spectrum. After his brief role as a doddering waiter in Istanbul, Rob Johansen moved readily into the nervous energy of the train's eager-to-please conductor, Michel.

"Murder on the Orient Express" is the sort of production you can breathe in as soon as you set your eyes on it. Subsequently, you will put aside your best guesses with difficulty, knowing the genre subjects the innocent viewer to tantalizing, misleading clues. In the meantime, you can feast upon characterizations in an elaborate bygone setting loaded with humor and, crucially, memories of the disturbing puzzle hinted at before any of the actors appears, the triggering event for all that follows, voiced from offstage. That will help you applaud the rare justice that emerges just before the final curtain. And there's so much else to enjoy along the way.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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