Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2009
There is a reason Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all time and that The Moustrap is the longest-running production in the world. Christie was a wonderful writer and The Moustrap is both an entertaining play and an intriguing murder mystery. If you have managed not to see it during the past 56 years, you should, (Never fear, I will not be the one to divulge any secrets), but even if you have seen it, it is equally entertaining to revisit, if for nothing else than to listen to how crisply Christie interweaves character and plot so that neither seem labored or contrived. Why is Mrs. Boyle so darned nosy about the number of rooms and servants at Monkswell Manor? Well, because that is the kind of snootsie-tootsie busybody she is…and because you are going to need to know all that information as the mystery unravels. You laugh at her haughtiness and then thank her for it later.
Mill City Productions is a community theatre and this production of The Moustrap, directed by Marissa Carlson, never rises above that level of expertise, but Christie was not only a good writer, she was a smart one, and The Moustrap is clearly crafted to fit neatly into the repertoire of and provide meaty roles for the average provincial stock company.
Mollie (Liz Urban) and Giles (Jeremy Kerr) Ralston have been married just a year. We meet them on the very snowy day they open their home, Monkswell Manor, as a guest house. Four guests are booked – a young architect named Christopher Wren (Michael Grogan), a brusque young woman Leslie Casewell (Brooke Mead), an older retired female Magistrate Mrs. Boyle (Diane Sprague), and an older retired military man Major Metcalfe (Dave Costa). An eccentric Italian gentleman named Paravachini (Chad Therrien) turns up unexpectedly after his car gets stuck in a snow drift.
And then Sergeant Trotter (Tim Mangum) shows up on skis, convinced that a London murderer is among the company at Monkswell Manor, and that two more murders are planned. He is right.
Eight characters snowed in at a country estate in 1952 (in other words pre-cell phone and internet) – two are the intended victims, one is the killer. The fun is figuring out which is which, a matter Christie does not make easy. Along the way she raises interesting questions about just how much we know about the people we interact with daily, both casually and intimately.
Mill City is a company founded and run by young adults (under 35). To them 1952 is ancient history and The Moustrap is a period piece. Carlson was drawn to direct the piece after the company presented it as a staged reading and she realized that she and her peers were far more familiar with the spoofs of Christie and her ilk than they were with the original. Carlson has wisely decided to follow Christie’s elaborately written stage directions, even when they felt awkward and unrealistic to her and her actors. Ever so occasionally you catch a whiff of anxiety when the players have to sit still when they would rather move, or when they move when Christie tells them to but don’t really know why, but overall sticking to the original works because Christie knew what she was doing, and she knew the upper-middle class British folks she was writing about and how they behaved.
Being convincingly British is the hardest thing for this company. Not only is there the problem of creating and maintaining accents – difficult for even the most professional of actors – but there is a reserve and a economy to mid-20th century British social interactions that it seems nearly impossible for young 21st century Americans to grasp. What Carlson and her performers perceive as inactivity is often intended by Christie as inner turmoil. Only a few of these actors are capable of showing that inner activity while sitting still.
Grogan and Mead do the best job. Their faces are rarely still even when their bodies are. Interestingly, both are playing characters who do not conform to gender stereotypes – Christopher Wren is decidedly femme and Leslie Casewell is butch to the tips of her sturdy leather boots. Following the morals of her time, Christie refers to homosexuality and gender-bending as psychiatric disorders, but she clearly likes these characters, and Grogan and Mead have great fun playing them.
Urban is the picture of the newlywed ingénue, but alas Kerr is incapable of matching her in style or talent. None of the costumes are true to the period, but Kerr’s unkempt head and facial hair, his poor posture, and his unbridled American emotionality is at odds with everyone else’s efforts to at least pretend to be 1950’s British folk.
Therrien would be entertaining as Paravachini – he certainly has an outrageous Italian accent and a great maniacal laugh going – except that he seems to have caught French Stewart Disease and is unable to keep his eyes open. When you cannot act with your body, your eyes become key, and without them Therrien is more of a mystery than his character.
Sprague and Costa could loosen up and have more fun with their roles.
Mangum is a completely monochromatic actor. He just is, which is a problem…especially at the end.
The set is passable, although why no artwork was hung on the broad and empty back wall is a mystery that bugged me almost as much as whodunit, but I wished it had been shallower. Mill City has done much to help turn the overly large and acoustically difficult space in Building 4 of Western Gateway Heritage State Park in to a theatre, but I felt that the distance between the actors and the audience was too great. It is one thing to have a fourth wall, it is another thing entirely to feel as if an entire extra room lies between you and the players.
Grogan gets credit for the costumes, and I give him a C+, but much more could be done to set the time, place, and tone of the piece had more effort and research been done. Bottom Line: Being a community theatre and operating on a tiny budget is not an excuse for being sloppy about details like dressing the set or getting the appropriate period look and feel to the costumes. Someone, usually the director, has to stand back, take a look, and set an attainable standard to which the designers must adhere.
Mill City Productions will present The Mousetrap in Building 4 at Western Gateway Heritage State Park in North Adams, MA, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 14, 15 & 16, at 8 p.m. Matinee is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday May 16. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for mystery lovers of all ages. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for seniors and students. For reservations, call 413-663-3211 or visit www.millcityproductions.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009