Contrary to her populist reputation, Agatha Christie was a rather literary writer. She had a way with plotting, and a psychological insight into behavior that served her novels well. But the success of The Mousetrap notwithstanding, her plays have not aged as well as her books. Masses of exposition must be delivered, and this always slows things down, even when the plot is as smashing as in Murder on the Nile, the play she adapted from her novel Death on the Nile. Pulse Ensemble mounted a terrific-looking production that excelled in many ways, not the least of which was several performances that deftly managed to sidestep some of the pitfalls.
The mood was neatly set right at the beginning, with title projections and music in the manner of a 1940s movie, a motif that was beautifully evoked by Zhanna Gurvich's sets and Terry Leong's costumes, all done in black-and-white, with shades of gray. Props were included in the design -- even the plants on each table in the observation saloon on the boat steaming down the Nile were monochromatic. On-shore sounds were well rendered by Louis Lopardi's design.
The characters are a stereotypical bunch -- an overbearing matron (Joanne Tolassi), her put-upon niece (Carlie McCarthy), a socialist who looks down on the rich (Frank Episale), a clergyman (Nikos Valance), a German doctor (Steve Abbruscato), newlyweds (Christine Karl and Barret O'Brien), the jilted girlfriend (Marianne Matthews). Each has a skeleton in the closet, and is any of them who he or she seems? When one of them turns up dead, it is Canon Pennyfather who puts together the bits and pieces until the murderer is revealed.
So it is especially pleasant to report that McCarthy was terrific as the meek but charming niece who (of course) comes into her own; Valance had the gravitas and solidity to be a suspect as well as the unraveler of the mystery; and Matthews brought pathos and a juicy hysteria to her character's dilemma. Sometimes characters were hamstrung by the mechanics of the plot (and wobbly accents), but each had a moment to shine, and when all the pieces were in place, everything made sense.
Readers of the novel (and viewers of the 1978 film) have noted the absence of Hercule Poirot. But Christie was right to reconfigure her plot for the stage -- with Poirot it would have been a play about him; without him, it becomes about the behavior, interactions, and concealments of this group of people isolated on board the steamer. And once the voluminous background material is presented, close attention must be paid, particularly when a red spot (the play's first color) highlights the character left on stage at the end of Act One (lighting by Douglas Filomena).
Director Alexa Kelly also had the good sense to have it all done completely straight yet allow some over-the-top elements. Camille Mazurek was wildly over-dramatic when she had everyone's attention, and her performance was funny at the same time it fit the dynamic of the play. Although the main murder took place off-stage, there were some very well-staged on-stage deaths. And when the curtain went up for Act Two, the set, costumes and props had been touched with a Technicolor wand. Hokey, but very effective -- and the audience was in on the joke.
And as the ultimate compliment, audience members on their way out were heard discussing who they'd thought the murderer was. They had, of course, been wrong.
Also with Brian Richardson and Mark Cirnigliaro.
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Copyright 2002 David Mackler