Strange that the English are so good at comedy and theater in all their forms. We don't think of them as a particularly expressive people. Of course, maybe that's the secret. In a similar vein, who would have picked them for great writers about, and appreciators of, crime? Jack-the-Ripper aside, the English seem to be strikingly law-abiding.
Agatha Christie (who died in 1976) was sometimes dubbed "The Queen of Crime." Her mysteries have sold around a billion copies in English and another billion in more than a hundred other languages scattered around the globe. Of course, many of her tales also made it to the stage and onto the silver screen. The Mousetrap, for instance, opened in London in 1952 and chugged along for more than 20,000 performances, setting a record for durability.
And Then There Were None, one of Christie's grisly comedies from the '30s, is currently getting a whirl at Rivertown Rep. Don't let the "grisly" scare you off. Part of the understated English humor in the story has to do with a wry acceptance of horrible murders committed by a homicidal maniac. I know that sounds like splitting your sides at Silence of the Lambs, but trust me.
Of course, you may not have to trust me. Chances are you are more familiar with this play than I am. In any case, the premise is this: a group has been invited to a house on an island. All we see of the house in Chad Talkington's attractive set is a sitting room that opens to a balcony over the sea. The house and guests are cared for by major domo Rogers (Roland "Butch" Caire) and his wife Mrs. Rogers (Kathy Taaffe). The beginning of the play is largely taken up establishing the guests and mood -- both of which are quite, quite British, I dare say. Since this is pre-WWII Britain, the empire still casts a glimmer, although Christie doesn't seem to be much interested in politics one way or the other. We have a retired general (Reggie Hendry), a flirtatious captain (Michael Aaron Santos), a private investigator (L. Jeffrey Mortorell), a young blade-about-town (J. Michael Tramontin) and several others, most notably, Mr. Owens' attractive young secretary (Ashley Ricord) -- most notably because the absent Mr. Owens is our enigmatic host. He's the deus ex machina driving the whole works -- demon ex machina is perhaps more accurate or, as the endangered revelers come to believe, homicidal maniac ex machina.
I would be a spoil sport if I told you the solution to this hazardous puzzle, but I can tell you how the dilemma develops. With a stunning (and stunningly simple) stage device, Christie sets a manhunt in motion. Some unknown individual has rigged the house so that a nursery rhyme is suddenly revealed: "Ten Little Soldiers." In the poem, they are killed one by one. There is also a group of 10 little porcelain soldier figures. A ghostly voice accuses each of the guests of having committed murder. In addition to the guests already mentioned, we have Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Jackson Townsend), a judge who may have arranged the execution of an alleged perpetrator the jury wanted to spare. Dr. Armstrong (Michael Cahill), a teetotaling "nerve" specialist who was a surgeon until he possibly botched an operation because of drunkenness and Emily Brent (Linda Hubchen), an acerbic prude who may have offed a domestic in her service.
We also come to learn that none of these guests has ever actually met their host. Anyway, each one will pay for his crime with his life. Furthermore, not only is escape impossible, but there is no way to communicate with the mainland. The Bates Motel has nothing on this island hideaway.
One by one, as the play continues, the members of this select imprisoned society get knocked off. The smaller the circle shrinks, the more likely it is that one of the survivors is the killer. This creates a peculiar sort of suspense -- for the deaths are never real enough to cause us dread. Something unreal but nonetheless compelling has been set loose and we can't help but wonder how it will all turn out.
In any case, director Gary Rucker puts a fine cast through its paces as well as taking a part himself. Although the program threatens three acts, there are actually only two acts in the usual sense of the word.
The real, horrifying, daily murders you read about in The Times-Picayune may send you spiraling into depression, but And Then There Were None is murder as entertainment.
- Suspicions rise in the ever-shrinking community in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.