Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley is a local actress.
Young marrieds Giles and Mollie Ralston (a well-matched Jackson Thompson and Jenny Strassburg) have recently purchased Monkswell Manor and turned it into a guesthouse. While preparing for their first guests to arrive, Mollie listens to a radio report about a vicious murder in London, related to a crime years ago at a farm near the Manor, the chief suspect a man in a dark coat, light scarf, and felt hat.
As their guests arrive, Giles is most concerned that these strangers will abscond with the valuables. Mollie, much more trusting, is looking forward to an adventure, but worries that the house isn't ready and the snowstorm outside will keep the guests away. But they do come.
The first to arrive is Christopher Wren (an exuberant Loren Dunn), an excitable young man who adores architecture and fine things. He instantly falls for Mollie, and she for him; their intensity initiates a bristling between Giles and Christopher.
Soon, Mrs. Boyle (very nicely played by Diana Van Fossen), the quintessential tough customer, arrives, having begrudgingly shared one of the last cabs before the storm hits with Major Metcalf (the ways committed and enjoyable Rodney Clark), jaunty and likable to all but Mrs. Boyle, a veteran who appears game for anything.
The last of the guests on the register, Miss Casewell, arrives chilled from the storm. Her queer appearance and aloofness make her instantly mysterious. Alice Sherman's physicality and attitude transform a character described as "mannish" into an intriguing figure that might have rivaled even Vesta Tilley (a famous English music hall entertainer known as a male impersonator).
But another guest arrives, one who is not on the Ralston's register: Mr. Paravacini (Brik Berkes), an altogether u known quantity, a man of indeterminate accent and origin. Stranded when his Rolls Royce plowed into a snow bank (the drifts are getting high), he seeks shelter at Monkswell Manor, and Berkes shifts smoothly from fumbling foreigner to sage and back.
Everyone soon hears or reads about the murder. What they don't know, until a phone call from a Siuperintendent Hogben, is that the London murderer is expected to strike again, this time at Monkswell Manor.
Meanwhile, the storm has closed all roads. Mollie, Giles and their guests -- one of them possibly the intended victim...or a murderer -- are trapped together for the night.
Enter Detective Sergeant Trotter (the very athletic Lowell Byers), who fights his way to the Manor on skis and announces that he's been sent by Hogben to provide protection
Murder and intrigue ensue, and we ask ourselves, as everyone on stage asks: What do we really know about each other? Does likability equate to trustworthiness? Can you really measure a person's integrity by the size and weight of their luggage?
Director James Bowen, in addition to a heavy emphasis on the laughs, puts his actors in an expansive playing space, and the blocking to fill it requires actors to often play at great distances from one another, resulting in a lack of intimacy that otherwise might allow audiences to pick up on some characters' suspicious body language or deliver the archness of tone and behavior a script like this one loves.
In that expans, however, scenic designer Peter Hicks' set is a perfect mash-up of cold and inviting, accented perfectly by Travis McHale's lighting design. The actors are mostly in tweed and will, designed by Jeffrey Todhunter It is worth the price of admission just to get your hands on the program notes by ASF's resident dramaturg, Susan Willis: "The Joy of Being Toyed With". She perfectly describes just what buttons Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap", and murder mysteries in general,push in audiences to make an entertaining outing. She even offers notes about the origin and history of this play that will almost certainly send some audience members on a post-show Googling spree. There is no doubt that audiences are committed to the journey on the Shakespeare Festival stage by a stellar cast.