Not only is this the Best Agatha Christie adaptation I’ve seen at Theatre in the Round Players (TRP) it’s also among their best productions period. There are two Twin Cities theater events that announce the holiday season is upon us, A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie and TRP’s annual Agatha Christie based play. It’s been an annual tradition in my family since well before my reviewing days to attend these for my Mother’s Birthday present, as we are both big Christie fans. This production does Christie’s first novel and the first appearance of her famous Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot justice. The Mysterious Affair at Styles has the best cast TRP has gathered since Red Herrings as well as being it’s most accomplished in several technical areas as well. This World Premiere adaptation by Kate Danley is the perfect little whodunnit and sure to please mystery fans.
The story is told in the first person by Lt. Arthur Hastings and takes place during the first World War. Hasting having been injured in the war has been sent home to recover. He has been invited by his boyhood friend John Cavendish to stay at Styles Court, the estate of his step-mother and late fathers wife Emily who has recently re-married. Her new husband is Alfred Inglethorp whom no one in the entire household likes aside from Emily. Among the household are John’s wife Mary, his younger brother Lawrence, Cynthia Murdock, a young woman who came to live with Emily after the death of her parents and works at the local hospitals Dispensary, Emily’s nurse Evelyn, and the maid Dorcas. On the periphery of the household, there is also Dr. Bauerstein an expert on toxicology at the hospital where Cynthia works. When Emily is found murdered by Strychnine Hastings old friend and war refugee who is being housed nearby, Hercule Poirot is called in to assist with finding the murderer. Working with Inspector Japp and with Hastings assistance, Poirot must discover who has done this crime and how.
There is not a weak link in the cast, which isn’t always the case with community Theatre. Standouts include Jake Leif as Hastings, whose skillful delivery includes stepping in and out of first person narration during the scene without ever confusing the audience. It’s in these moments that much of the humor of the piece comes out. Ben Tallen’s performance as Poirot is excellent but it does contain the productions one disappointment, his Poirot has a beard rather than the finest mustache in Britain. Whether it’s the actors unwillingness to shave or a misguided directorial choice, a regrettable decision as it is one of the characters trademark characteristics. But that is a surface issue and aside from that he is brilliant, funny, warm and in all other ways the Poirot we know and love. Todd Hansen plays Japp as a down to earth Inspector that reminds us pleasantly of Philip Jacksons Portrayal of the character on the Poirot TV series. All three of these performances are of the highest quality, their stage presence and characterizations are compelling. A side note on Patti Gage as the maid Dorcas, it’s a small role with very few lines, but it’s an audience favorite. Gage makes you wish there were a bigger role for her character as she adds some wonderful line readings and humor to the production.
Kate Danley’s script is perfectly paced and easy to follow and yet the answer eludes us until Poirot gathers all the players together to reveal the solution. Linda S. Paulsen directs and I was impressed with the staging as well as the transitions between scenes. She’s cast the show perfectly and found the right balance of humor, romance and mystery. I was also greatly impressed with the Sound Design by Kristin Smith and Lighting Design by Mark Kieffer. There was a scene where we transitioned from day to evening and the way the lighting changed and the subtle sounds of nature changed, for a moment I immediately thought of a dissolve in a film to show the same scene after a passage of time. There were numerous subtle moments like that that raised this to another level, Paulsen’s effective use of music throughout also gave this production a polished feel. There was a subtlety to all of these elements that really highlights Paulsens skill in combining all of the production elements into a smoothly flowing narrative.
A wonderful cast supported by a strong script and effective work from every department make for one of the theatrical highlights of the season. For more information on The Mysterious Affair at Styles and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreintheround.org/home/season-placeholder/current_season/
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