Written by Don and Peggy Doman, and Lavinia Hart.
Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd at Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle.
Adapted by Danielle Mohlman.
Some people consider The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as the best crime novel in history. Most theatre-goers, upon attending the premiere adaptation of the novel, will consider it the best crime mystery on stage in the greater Puget Sound area. The narrative of the novel is under the control of the Murderer. Clue 1. For this production Clue 1 is in the control of the keen eye, heart, and humor of director Jasmine Joshua (they/them). They bring together the artistry of the actors and designers in a way that freely supports their creative choices in perfecting the world of the play. The audience is seamlessly carried away by the occupants – the Ackroyd family, friends, household staff, hidden romances and even the local law inspector.
Playwright Danielle Mohlman and Jasmine Joshua collaborated on script development, including a workshop with a hand-chosen group of diverse actors to hone the script to a delightful overall structure. The workshop was conducted without regard to gender, racial heritage or age. Roles were cast at a later date which brings out a rich sense of back-story for each suspect in the mystery. The group became a strong ensemble, an attribute for which Book-It is famous. Ensemble work provides actors and designers a short hand in developing a vocabulary for the production – sharpening structure, timing, focus and making every move count to move the play forward. Clutter and self-indulgence are replaced by theatre artistry at its best.
As you can tell, our group of three found the production immensely entertaining. Don and Peg Doman, long-time area reviewers, brought along former Detroit Artistic Director Lavinia Hart because all have been fans of Book-It’s repertoire for decades. This is as polished a production as we have seen anywhere. In post-show conversation, while the ensemble is the true star, a few favorite player choices emerged.
Sydney Maltese brought distinction and wonderful contrast between her characters of John Parker and Ursula Bourne. Her skill in physical characterization told worlds about her inner life, simply with a movement of her head in double take or the angle of her body as she walked down the stair way from the master’s quarters. Her carriage was crisp and utterly unique. Lisa Viertel as Roger Ackroyd was the epitome of a self-satisfied member of landed gentry – working with archetype but bring wonderful individuality in her gruff stodginess.
Aaron Pitre as Hercule Poirot also found uniqueness in his boyish charm and delight in the unfolding story. His energy is always engaging and avoids the egotism trap of being the one who knows all the answers. Megan Ahiers as Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd is properly anxious about the outcome of Ackroyd’s will and, then, in the most distinctive departure from her primary character assignment portrays an absolutely hilarious local police inspector. Her Irish irritability and refusal to be cowed by the gentry is very refreshing. Riley Gene, playing Mrs. Ackroyd’s daughter Flora, Geoffrey Raymond and Charles Kent, show the greatest range in crossing gender and status. They achieve the portrayals with moments of deep honesty. These notes of vulnerability and passion are beautiful colors in the production’s tapestry. Rhys Daly brings the strongest athleticism to his character choices. He is touchingly believable as Major Hector Blunt as the secret lover of Flora Ackroyd. In contrast he plays the weaker, but charming, son of Roger Ackroyd.
Final notes of wonderful work go to Brandon J Simmons as Dr. James Sheppard, Ackroyd’s closest friend who becomes Poirot’s faithful notetaker and sounding board. Simmon’s skill drives the plot forward and keeps the audience abreast of the developments as they are interpreted by Poirot. A lesser actor might fall into a predictable “side-kick” archetype but Simmon’s Dr. Sheppard keeps us guessing until the curtain falls.
The beautiful set design fits the space and gives a variety of atmospheres full range. Robin Macartny did a masterful job of creating the indoor sense of wealth and a long-standing family history. The complementing work of set and lighting design by Richard Schaefer, allow the audience to see the actors changing those atmospheres and sense of place by simply stepping over a low platform onto a city walk-way or stepping from a sitting room into a moonlight night. The attention to detail by these two designers included a providing a warm fireplace light during the vivid flashbacks and colder room as details of the murder appear in real time. Johanna Melamed’s sound design was perfect with music from the 1930’s that was mostly upbeat and spirited. She also supported the darker tones of the play with “blue-r” sound choices. All were evocative.
Jocelyne Fowler’s costume design showed the care she took in research the colors and styles of the men and women’s clothing. The household staff show’s status in the butler’s black and white while the still proud but servitude of Ackroyd’s parlourmaid is shown with the formless sweater she wears about the house. Our hands down favorite costume were the bobby blue uniform of Police Inspector Raglan and his bobby broad beard and moustache. His ruddy round cheeks and sparkling eyes, provided by Ms. Ahiers, created memorable responses that reveal the rich inner life of the street detective as he is astonished by Poirot’s pursuits that disagree with his own. Finally, one must comment on the most unusual three colored shoes worn by Hercule Poirot. Signaling a lineage possibly descending from Harlequino, they are worth the price of admission all on their own.
The play runs through March 5, 2023
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