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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Don’t Blame the Butler in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, Alex Rodriguez as Mr. Paravincini, Nick Medina as Christopher Wren, Karen Offereins as Miss Casewell, Adam Magill as Detective Sergeant Trotter, and David Sinaiko as Major Metcalf. - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, Alex Rodriguez as Mr. Paravincini, Nick Medina as Christopher Wren, Karen Offereins as Miss Casewell, Adam Magill as Detective Sergeant Trotter, and David Sinaiko as Major Metcalf.

Attending a play at the Shotgun Players Ashby Stage in Berkeley is a downright cozy affair. The large crowd was in high spirits as they mingled and maneuvered around the tiny foyer. People waved and smiled from across the crowded room, then found a way toward each other to embrace. This tightly knit community of theatergoers exuded an air of long-held camaraderie. But wasn’t all that holiday cheer merely covering up old, festering, unaired grudges? And wasn’t there an almost imperceptible sense of envy and deep-seated ill-will seething beneath the surface of all that politesse?

click to enlarge Megan Trout as Mollie Ralston and Nick Medina as Christopher Wren. - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Megan Trout as Mollie Ralston and Nick Medina as Christopher Wren.

The novelist and playwright Agatha Christie must have asked herself questions like these as she fictionalized the anatomy of social interactions. Christie was a keen observer of human nature, noticing the difference between what people say and what they don’t. Her artfully macabre imagination filled in that murky space between the two. The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952 and holds the distinction of being the longest running show in history, is, at this point in time, easy to dismiss as a campy whodunit with a clichéd cast of stock characters. But something is clearly still relevant when a play continues to hold our attention more than fifty years after it was written.

click to enlarge Nick Medina as Christopher Wren, Mick Mize as Giles Ralston, Megan Trout as Mollie Ralston, David Sinaiko as Major Metcalf, Karen Offereins as Miss Casewell, Adam Magill as Detective Sergeant Trotter, Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, andAlex Rodriguez as Mr. Paravincini. - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Nick Medina as Christopher Wren, Mick Mize as Giles Ralston, Megan Trout as Mollie Ralston, David Sinaiko as Major Metcalf, Karen Offereins as Miss Casewell, Adam Magill as Detective Sergeant Trotter, Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, andAlex Rodriguez as Mr. Paravincini.
In the decades since the original (and ongoing) production, countless mystery novels, TV series and movies have borrowed from Christie, but the bones of her story always stay fixed in place. An isolated house in the country, a few guests gathering together, and murder most foul! The audience retains an interest in these variations on a theme because of the motive behind the murder. We always want to know the why, “Why did he/she do it?” If the story that leads to the murder and the reasoning behind it — however flawed or disturbing — compels the viewer, then we forgive the familiarity of the plot.

In the Shotgun preamble to The Mousetrap, a faux BBC radio voice makes a series of announcements, then transitions to a symphony as the lights dim to black. That’s just one of the small touches that builds upon the feeling of intimacy there, as if we’re watching a small town production. The curtain opens in the lovely drawing room of a rural home in post-World War II Britain, where food rations are still a part of daily life. As the story progresses, it gradually becomes clear that the characters are also suffering, in one form or another, from psychological deprivations as well. When the murder does take place, Christie has ably endowed everyone on stage with a plausible motive, along with a host of red herrings. What are those objects that Mr. and Mrs. Ralston, the newlywed owners of the house, conceal from each other in the first scene? Even this sweet young couple appears to have something to hide. 

Christie offers up one well-disguised feint after another until the denouement. At the curtain call, the actors politely request that the audience not reveal the murderer’s identity (a quaint nod to an era when search engines and CSI did not exist). Although that secret — and other possible spoilers (there’s actually no butler to pin this one on) — will be honored here by omission, let us briefly then turn our attention to the array of British accents employed by the actors in service and devotion to the English, as opposed to American, script. Some are more successful than others.

Megan Trout (as Mollie Ralston) and Nick Medina (Christopher Wren) are as comfortable with their line readings as they are inhabiting their characters, but they also have the advantage of richer backstories and neuroses. Unfortunately (for them and for the audience), one actor’s accent starts in Romania travels to Slovenia and capsizes on the Adriatic before it can reach Italy, the intended destination. If only that misplaced, overwrought accent had settled down in one intelligible country, or foregone the voyage altogether. Save for that discordant note, this production of The Mousetrap is vibrant and jaunty. The set is charming, and, the director sets a brisk pace without being hurried.
Mid-way through the performance, the sound of an ambulance siren from outside
penetrated the theater. The actors on stage used the moment to their advantage,
instantly winning the theater over with their wit and comic timing. This was a murder
mystery after all; someone would be in need of medical attention, and soon. 

The Mousetrap, through Jan. 17 at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

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