Killer play: Clockwise from left, Leigh Wakeford, Joshua Forecum and Katherine Proctor in Cortland
Repertory’s The Mousetrap.
Well, after running continuously for
nearly 56 years, with more than 23,000 performances in London alone, a
lot of people already know who done it. Indeed, maybe everyone in the
audience knows. No matter. It’s not the surprise revelation that amuses
us anyway, it’s the journey of getting there.
Cortland Repertory Theatre has done us all a favor by producing two Christie classics in succession, Ten Little Indians last year and now The Mousetrap.
Director Jim Bumgardner has been in charge both times. This time the
Anglophilia is even more evident, starting with Carl Tallent’s
attractive wood-paneled set and Jennifer Paar’s period costumes, all
better-looking than you would have seen in cash-strapped post-war
Not only are the British accents thick
and consistent, but they indicate class differences, perhaps a
contribution of assistant director Corrine Grover, a beloved CRT
veteran. Take, for example, Dustin Charles’ performance as the unkempt
Detective Sergeant Trotter, a man given to rude insinuations. Charles’
investigator speaks in tones implying lower rungs on the social ladder
from the others.
The Mousetrap is a more compact play than Ten Little Indians, which
was originally a novel. In the earlier work 12 people are on an island,
waiting to be bumped off; this time a country inn, Monkswell Manor,
isolated in a snowstorm, holds only five, plus the two hosts and the
sergeant. In Indians characters are barely sketched before they keel over. In Mousetrap’s
narrative, expanded from a short story, Dame Agatha gets to play around
with the character, cat-and-mouse style (pun unavoidable), to see what
she can uncover.
This doesn’t mean Christie wants to
compete with Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller in the depth of her
characterizations, but she does seem intent to show us she’s more than
a “mere” entertainer, even as she entertains. Everyone in the action,
for instance, is revealed to be hiding something, making him or her
different from appearances.
In some ways the actors portraying the inn owners, Sonya Cooke as Mollie and Leigh
Wakeford as Giles Ralston, have the hardest jobs because they are,
initially, the blandest people in the drama, a British Ozzie and
Harriet. They’re supposed to be reassuring, even though Christie toys
with us in an opening scene by having a radio announcer describe a
killer in the city who’s dressed exactly as Giles is. This means that
Wakeford’s Giles must first appear righteous, properly outraged when
people behave badly, but still have a hidden dimension to open the door
Cooke’s Mollie is even trickier. She is
on the stage most often in the first two-thirds of the action, winning
our trust. But when we find out she hasn’t been telling us the whole
truth, she cannot shatter before us.
Philosophically, Christie shares with
her fellow English Catholics Alfred Hitchcock and Graham Greene the
perception that every human, every character, is stained with original
sin, fully capable of moral collapse at any moment. This doesn’t mean
we all have to go to church to clean up matters, but she gets us to
believe that every single person in the manor could be the guilty party, except for the first deceased.
One of the amusements found in The Mousetrap absent in Ten Little Indians is
the way the dialogue comments ironically on the action and the art of
the whodunit itself. In some ways Christie is just showing off because
she was 61 on opening night, and a name known to everyone in the
English-speaking world. In another way she was anticipating the
post-modernism that would not emerge for another 20 years. Consider the
observation, “All the guests are either peculiar or odd.”
Indeed they are: a virtual vaudeville
show of eccentricities and tics. Each character gets to strut his or
her stuff in a lengthy solo entrance. Christopher Wren (Joshua Forecum)
is a fey walking peacock of flamboyant neuroses. In 1952 gays were
still in the closet legally as well as on stage, but director
Bumgardner and actor Forecum release the secret so it flies across the
boards. His counterpart Miss Casewell (Katherine Proctor), all
heavy-legged trousers and a military step, underplays the indications
of her intimate preferences but not before teasing Sergeant Trotter’s
curiosity, as well as the others, at how she happened to have arrived
where she is by herself.
The three older guests are variations on
types, beginning with Mrs. Boyne (Robbeye Lewis), an excruciating
reactionary with an obsession for dry rot. She complains about the
labor shortage in her most endearing line, “The lower social orders
have no idea of their responsibility.” Better manners distinguish
retired Major Metcalf (Gerard Pauwels), who cannot conceal his
constantly shifting eyes.
Last to arrive is the theatrical Mr.
Paravicini (Michael Kreutz), given to operatic flourishes and
over-precise pronunciations. There’s a bit of a theatrical in-joke here
as the women observe he is wearing makeup behind his Salvador
Dali-esque moustache. Can anyone putting on such a false face be
anything but a fraud?
Beetle-browed Sergeant Trotter works
harder than other Christie detectives and while lacking the pretense to
superior insight, like Hercule Poirot, appears to have done his legwork
first. He never puts himself on a perch, asking to be knocked off.
Knowing who the killer is should not dissuade audiences. If you watch Cortland Repertory’s The Mousetrap
armed with this forbidden knowledge, you realize Christie is playing
cat-and-mouse with the audience as well. That’s the real reason
audiences keep going back again and again.
This production runs through Saturday, July 12. See Times Table for information.