Friday, February 11, 2011

Millbrook: "The Mousetrap"

A dark and stormy night -- a snowstorm, that is; telephone lines are down; a set of eccentric and suspicious characters have arrived at a remote English guest house called "Monkswell Manor" a drafty building that hundreds of years earlier had been a monastery and whose new proprietors are an inexperienced young couple about to celebrate their first wedding anniversary...and the radio proclaims that the murderer of a woman in London might be in the area. -- So begins Agatha Christie's tale, The Mousetrap, which premiered in 1952 and has been continuously running ever since, making it the longest-running play in history, and which is now being produced by the Millbrook Community Players.

Long considered to have set the gold-standard of the murder mystery genre, the play continues to entertain audiences; half the fun of seeing a play of this sort is in trying to figure out "who done it", by peeling away the layers of plot and circumstance, the "red herrings" that distract us from the truth by leveling suspicion on several of the characters before a twist-ending that reveals all. Christie herself admonished her original audiences not to reveal the ending in order that fresh audiences would be startled by the result. -- That convention is still acknowledged today, so don't expect to read the answers here.

Let's just say that nothing is exactly as it appears; every character has both opportunity and motive for the crimes, so no one is above suspicion.

Mollie and Giles Ralston [Madyson Greenwood & Doug Greenwood] play the newlyweds with sincerity and conviction. One can sense their struggling with the grand opening of their inn and trying to make the best of it. Their inexperience in managing their assorted guests' demands and eccentric behavior is engaging.

As the paying guests arrive one by one, and the storm blocks them in, there is nothing to do but try to make things as comfortable as possible. -- Mrs. Boyle [Hidi Loop] is a cantankerous sort who is hyper-critical of virtually everything and intollerant of anyone else. Christopher Wren [Daniel Harms] is a strange unkempt young man who delights in nursery-rhymes and fantasy life. Major Metcalf [Roger Humber], a salty old coot, flows with the punches. And Miss Casewell [Kayle Georgiafandis] is a masculine looking loner. -- And then an unexpected guest arrives seeking shelter from the storm; Mr. Paravicini [John Chain] is a lively Italian who wears make-up and can't seem to explain much of his background.

Before the phone goes down, a call from the police tells them that an officer will soon be there, as he suspects the London murderer will be in the vicinity because he is mysteriously connected to another murder case that happened years ago at a farm near to the Manor.

When one of the guests is killed, the interrogations begin. After all, since they are isolated by the storm, the murderer must be one of them.

True to the murder mystery form, all will be revealed through various interrogations and re-enactments; though each time suspicion lands on one character, something else is revealed to shift attention to another. -- And this ensemble company make the investigation worthwhile for the audience, sustaining interest and allowing us to be convinced we have identified the culprit before the conclusion.

Director Susan Chain guides her experienced and neophyte actors through the plot's complexities, allowing each moment and each piece of the puzzle to get its fair share of attention, but she misses out too frequently on making each moment contribute to building tension so necessary in this genre by giving each one the same emphasis. A varied pace would help too in establishing a rhythm of highs and lows that is missing here.

Frequently, the actors' voices can't be heard -- partly due to the poor acoustics of the theatre, and partly due to the actors' weak projection -- but can be made clearer with focussed effort in the use of the voices.

Regardless, The Mousetrap can capitalize on its long reputation as a model of the form, and the Millbrook production makes it work.