Murder on the Orient Express at Guthrie Theater

Gavin Lawrence as Monsieur Bouc assists Andrew May as Hercule Poirot in his investigations Photo by Dan Norman

I’ve been an Agatha Christie fan for as long as I can remember. The great thing about that is, since she is the best selling fiction writer of all time, as a fan you’re never short of new adaptations on stage and screen to enjoy. The downside can be that as a fan, who has read most of her works and seen most of the film and television adaptations and at least a dozen stage shows, I almost always know the solution to the mystery. I still enjoy most of them to some extent, but for me it becomes about the production itself, more howdunnit than whodunnit. The Guthrie Theater’s new production of Murder on the Orient Express understands that you cannot change the solution to the mystery when adapting a classic like this. Only Christie herself can do that, as she did in changing the ending between the book and play of And Then There Were None, for example. If you are unfamiliar with the mystery, it’s a good one and you’re in for a real treat. The good news is, if you do remember the story, and I think that’s probably quite a large segment of the population with it being one of Christie’s most frequently adapted novels, your still in for a highly entertaining evening! The show is a marvel of production design and features a cast filled with local favorites and a unique take on the great detective himself.

Ken Ludwig has adapted the novel for the stage and in doing so has remained faithful to the mystery of the novel while also putting his own spin on things. Ludwig does a nice job of pairing down the number of suspects from 12 in the original novel to eight for his play. This allows us to get to know and keep straight the different characters, yet still a large enough pool of suspects that it’s never obvious who the real killer is. There’s room to devote a little introductory scene to each of the characters without bogging the play down, in fact it barrels along like a runaway train. Running 2 hours and 20 minutes (including intermission) it feels much shorter. Ludwig’s biggest change, what makes it very entertaining, is the addition of humor. There is a healthy dose of the comedic thriller without crossing the line into Clue territory. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a mystery comedy but the humor that is there comes from the performances of the cast and it marks the biggest departure for Poirot himself

With a character like Hercule Poirot, who has been played to faithful perfection by David Suchet on TV, it’s a losing battle to attempt to be even more faithful. The best way for a a new adaptation to go, try and bring a fresh approach to the character. Andrew May brings Poirot back from the land of caricature and makes him more of a real person. By not leaning into the characters idiosyncrasies, he creates a Poirot that we can identify with rather than just sit in awe of. It humanizes the great detective which allows for moments of humor that work for this play but would be out of character in a more faithful portrayal. The reason we restage and reinterpret Christie is no different than the reason we do so with Shakespeare. Because the choices made by playwrights, directors, and actors affects the whole, brings out new aspects of a piece new meanings or even just new avenues of entertainment. I liked the choices May made as Poirot, it gave me a version of the character I hadn’t seen before. Gavin Lawrence as Poirot’s old friend Bouc, who happens to run the company that operates the Orient Express, is the perfect sidekick for this new Poirot. He could very easily have been the blank slate to whom the detective shares his thoughts in order to keep the audience informed, but he’s so much more than that. There is a palpable friendship between the men, Lawrence is particularly good with the humorous reactions and shared looks with May. The entire cast is great, I always love to see Tyler Michaels King in anything, same with China Brickey and Peter Christian Hansen who plays two different roles so well, that I didn’t realize he was both characters until I went to the program at intermission. Once again proving herself to be one of the best actors working the Minnesota stages, Sally Wingert gets the biggest laughs in a performance that contains more layers than are at once obvious.

Director Risa Brainin keeps the show moving right along, there’s never a moment that seems wasted or overstays its welcome. I loved her staging of Poirot’s summation where he walks us through how he solved the mystery. Brainin has the lights go down with a spotlight on Poirot as he recounts what happened and the actors recreate the moments from earlier in the play. In fact, there are a lot of clever lighting cues from Lighting Designer Michael Klaers that add an almost cinematic quality to the production. There’s also effective use of Projection which was designed by Miko Simmons, it adds realism to some scenes and a theatricality to others. The costumes by Devon Painter are period appropriate, Painter eschew going full dandy with Poirot, which compliments the choices May has made with his characterization. The star of the production though, the real WOW! is the set design by Rob Koharchik. It’s elegant in its appearance and incredibly versatile and inventive in its utilization. I’m not sure what I was expecting but when the train cars began to move, I knew that wasn’t what I was expecting. It really is one of the best sets in terms of inventiveness and ingenuity that I’ve seen in a long time.

Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery told in a very entertaining way, with an excellent cast and knock your socks off production design. I highly recommend it whether you are new to this Christie classic or know the story, either way you’re in for a very entertaining night at the theater. Murder on the Orient Express runs through July 2nd for more information and to purchase tickets go to

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