Murder on the Orient Express @ Pentacle Theatre

photo pentacletheatre.org

I love Agatha Christie and Murder on the Orient Express is one of my favorites. I was a little unsure about the price tag ($25 per ticket) but figured, it’s Salem, people pay more there, right? I hadn’t been to Pentacle Theatre before, so it was going to be an interesting night.

The theatre is off Hwy 22, up a hilly road and tucked away in the trees. Once we parked, we walked a long a trail leading us to the theatre. This is an interesting building because the trail leads you to the Box Office and auditorium, which is the second floor. You have to take the stairs or a switchback style ramp, outside of the building, to get to the first floor where the restrooms, concessions, and lobby are located. It’s a lovely log cabin-ey type building with large restrooms. The lobby has gorgeous photographs of the current and past shows as well as cool tables with the logo built in. The staff and volunteers were very friendly and welcoming. The auditorium is intimate with seating shaped like an angels body with wings which provides a good size floor space in front of the stage for action. If you are seated on either of the farthest reaches of the seating chart; however, you’ll miss anything happening on stage behind the opening on your side. (I know, that probably doesn’t make sense the way I described it.) It didn’t seem particularly ADA friendly having to go up and down between floors and ADA seating is located at the end of the right side seating chart. The seating is slightly elevated from row to row, though, which makes seeing over the person sitting in front of you easier. A little snug between rows which seems to be the norm in theatres. This was the last performance so I didn’t get seats on the aisle; but I managed and the people sitting on both sides of us were friendly. The theatre is strict about beverages and snacks. You are not allowed to eat in the auditorium due to chewing and rustling noise and your drink must have a lid. They do offer a 20 minute intermission to provide patrons ample time to snack, use the restroom, and get back and forth between floors. Greg and I ate the snacks we brought (there are rarely gluten free options, so I always bring something) on the deck outside the auditorium door. It was very cold and I thought it would’ve been nice to have a couple of outdoor heaters stationed for those who chose not to go downstairs to the lobby. The chairs are a gorgeous bronze-y color and were quite comfortable. I didn’t notice much fidgeting on my part. Okay, now for the show…

The stage was beautifully decorated with gold trim and velvety red side curtains. When the show finally started, I was a bit worried–actually a lot worried. The opening scene was a short film, done by Liz Rogers, presented with no context (like a title card with the year or something), about the back story of the little girl who was kidnapped and murdered, which is the origin story of the play. It was creepy, as I’m sure it intended to be; however, not necessary. (I also had problems with some of the production elements. The girl was supposed to be sleeping when she was kidnapped but when the man goes into her room, she’s still wearing her day clothes and she’s sleeping on top of the covers. She screams but no one hears?) When the play starts, I get worried because the action is down on the floor space and many of the actors speak with their backs to the audience. It’s introduction time, you know, getting to know the passengers and their personalities. Every one of them had clear characters and were mostly understandable with their accents. Costume designer Susan Schoaps, created beautiful costuming down to the little details like a knife sheath tucked in the Scottsman Colonel Arbuthnot’s sock. He never used it, it was just there. The hair and wigs by Eddie Willits was stunning and transformed a number of characters, notably Poirot and Princess Dragomiroff. The set was well thought out by Chris Benham and I loved how they slid the train cars in and out for scene changes. One for the sleeping car and one for the dining car. Also, the movement of the sets was so quiet and smooth! (Other theatres should take note and ask how they did it.) The play also incorporated two wooden flats which slid together to create the hallway for the sleeper car with doors to each compartment. It was a bit flimsy near the bottom of each door; but overall, a clever touch. Set decoration by Lisa Joyce and Isaac Joyce-Shaw was just what you’d expect to see on the Orient Express which I loved except for the dining car lamps near the top of the car were never turned on. I suspect they didn’t want shadows from above, or maybe they forgot or chose not do; but just a little LED in there to make the lampshade have a little glow would have completed it. Projection seems to be the answer when faced with a visual or scenery challenge and it works, most of the time. I loved seeing the weather change through the windows of the car but some of the other projection was distracting, specifically the Syria bit. Distracting because Poirot and Monsieur Bouc are having a conversation and then the curtain comes down behind them and a projection of the map of Syria is displayed, then quickly taken out. I didn’t need it. The staging and directing by Isaac Joyce-Shaw, with assistant director Ty Hendrix, seemed to work, most of the time. The scenes on the floor space felt experimental, and while I like to push the boundaries as a director as well, having so much action or dialogue with actor’s backs turned, didn’t work. I had pretty good seats, too, just slightly off the aisle on the right side of the auditorium. If I was seated in the center or too far on the sides, I would’ve missed a lot. Also, I don’t understand why the cars couldn’t come all the way out of the opening. Sure, it made for easier entrances and exits for the dining car; but, the side exits were used all night. Pushing the cars all the way out would’ve provided better sight lines for the audience sitting all the way on the ends of the side seating. Continuity in environment was a lost a number of times. One minute, the actors are passing each other in the “cramped” hallway and the next minute, the rest of the cast runs out the side exits and stands in front of them with no regard for the cramped hallway. I know I nit-pick, but these things matter. Put some tape on the floor or a piece of chair rail somehow on the stage to reflect the narrow space and give the actors the true feeling of tight quarters. The ending lost a bit of energy as the actors were all seated, and to be fair, they were all probably tired since it was the last performance. The director decided to use another short film showing the actual murder which sounds like a good idea but overall wasn’t well executed. Pardon the pun. Each character takes a turn stabbing the victim; except, it doesn’t sound like a stabbing and no one has blood on their hands. I would’ve have liked the lights to dim a bit, the sleeping compartment to slide back one, and one by one, each character walk up and recreate their part in the stabbing. You don’t need the sound effect, the movement keeps the actor energy up, and the action has more of a wow factor. Lights come back up, everyone looks guilty, and then Bam! Poirot has to make a decision. Plus, it gives the victim a little more stage time ๐Ÿ™‚ As for the actors…

Ed Schoaps played Poirot perfectly. His accent was one point and every word clear. He had fantastic facial expressions, moved about with purpose, and connected well with the audience. Tom Wrosch played Monsieur Bouc with great enthusiasm and was fun to watch. “He’s Belgium!” Ha ha. Amanda Konstantine played Mary Debenham with such earnest, her tone and urgency reminded me of Lea Michele–meant as a compliment to her. Erik Vigeland played Hector McQueen with just the right amount of uncertainty and awkwardness. Chris Davidson played Michel very well; especially in the final scenes when we could see him from a closer perspective. Julianna Gibbons played Princess Dragomiroff with great stiffness and sarcasm. Her dialogue got a bit lost at times with her Russian accent; however, she carried herself well. Alaina Lesko played Greta Ohlsson quite well; although, I would’ve liked her with a bit more restraint and secrecy. Lynelle Littke played Helen Hubbard like a classy Midwest socialite. Being the ring leader, it would’ve been great if she played it a bit more dramatic so her end scene was more heartfelt with her guard down. Miss Hubbard is an actress after all…Abigail Brockamp played Countess Andrenyi well with her Hungarian accent and it was nice to see her transformation in the end scene to American. Her slap was probably more effective from the center seats. Sight lines didn’t do her any favors there. Ryan Snyder played Colonel Arbuthnot, kept his Scottish accent throughout, and had some great expressions that for many were missed with his back turned. Anthony J. Redelsperger played Samuel Ratchett (the victim) with ferociousness in the opening scenes as a desperate yet over confident man. He “gets” to stay on stage for quite a while playing a dead guy and does a pretty good job of it. It would’ve been great to have him come back in the final scene to be murdered instead of watching it on video.

I know I nit-picked quite a bit. Such is life when it’s a show you love so much and have an idea of how you think it should be done and be open to someone else’s interpretation at the same time. This is director Isaac Joyce-Shaw’s second time directing at the Pentacle Theatre and I’m sure there will be more in store for him as he takes chances, which is a good thing in theatre. The Pentacle is a unique space with a wide half moon shaped audience seating system making the visual experience a most fun challenge. We had a good time and will probably return for a future show. Probably Company in May ๐Ÿ™‚ I’d like to see how they do with a musical ๐Ÿ™‚

The season continues with The Cake, Feb 28th to Mar 21st; Rabbit Hole, April 10th to May 2nd; Company, May 22nd to June 13th; She Kills Monsters: Young Adventures Edition, July 24th to Aug 15th; The Fantasticks, Sept 4th to 26th; Ripcord, Oct 16th to Nov 7th; and Shrek The Musical, Nov 27th to Dec 19th. For tickets and showtimes, visit the Pentacle website HERE.

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