Great Lakes Theater's Production of 'Murder on the Orient Express' is a Luscious Theatrical Package

Buckle in for a night of splendid turns and visual delights

click to enlarge Great Lakes Theater's Production of 'Murder on the Orient Express' is a Luscious Theatrical Package
Photo Credit: Roger Mastroianni

It would be foolish to suggest that anyone should see the current show at Great Lakes Theater, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, simply so they can experience the scenic and lighting design by Rick Martin. After all, that would minimize the substantial contributions made to this production by the director, actors, other designers, and the script—a Ken Ludwig adaptation of Agatha Christie's mystery that first appeared almost a century ago.

But once the show curtain is removed to reveal the titular train, you're on board for a visual treat as the choo-choo's skeletal structure is rotated back and forth on a turntable to focus on different train compartments. This allows us to see through "doors" and "walls" to view the frequent movement of the people, er, suspects as they flounce and swan their way in and out of the sightline of the gimlet-eyed super detective Hercule Poirot, who just happens to be on the train heading back to England for a rest after a business a stop in Syria.

At one moment early on, there is a gorgeous tableau where snow is falling from above, with the train illuminated by a series of interior pole lights while fog swells up from below. It's an image I'd like to frame and hang on a wall. But the greatest compliment that can be paid to Martin's set is that it serves to energize and amplify the many scenes in this show that could easily become bogged down in exposition and repetition.

Major credit also goes to director Charles Fee as he keeps his cast on point as they pick up their cues as fast as they dispense their clues. This helps immensely since the plot is as complicated as a web spun by a drunk spider, even in this trimmed down version. For those who haven't found time in the last 90 years to encounter M/OE, it's a murder mystery involving two events: a tragic killing of a small child years before (based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping) and in present time the fileting of one of the passengers on the train.

The latter murder happens on the Orient Express, the famous passenger train that put the luxe in luxurious with rosewood and marble interiors, velvet settees, vaulted ceilings, and flower lamps signed by Lalique. In short, it ain't no Rapid Transit line.

Once the gory stabbing of the victim is discovered, while the train itself is snowbound, Poirot dispenses with his vacation plans and sets about to discover the culprit. Some elegant one-liners are tossed into the mix—at one point a woman that her recently deceased husband "had no talent for longevity"—as the age-old process of detective interrogating suspects flows along at a sprightly pace.

Leading this effort is David Anthony Smith as Poirot, a charming pain-in-the-ass as he orders everyone about including the train's manager Monsieur Bouc, the train crew, and the other passengers. Smith is one of those performers who can enter a seemingly bland sentence and make it sparkle simply from razor-like timing, elocution and enunciation.

He is well-supported by a large cast of actors portraying would-be felons, including Jillian Kates in the showy role of Helen Hubbard, the ugly American who cares not to hide her interest in men, booze and a good time. As Bouc, who acts as Poirot's sounding board, Jeffrey C. Hawking gets more laughs than you'd expect). Elegant Countess Andrenyi (Angela Utrera) cuts a fine figure and manages to light a fire under Poirot's somewhat lukewarm libido. And as Princess Dragomiro and her personal attendant Greta Ohlssom, Eva Weiglat Barnes and Jodi Dominick add some bonus mystery to the proceedings.

Of course, the ending is what makes M/OE so enduring, as it tosses the concepts of punishment and justice into a cocked (and oh-so-decorous) hat. After all the splendid speeches and visual delights, it will leave you to mull the appropriateness of the outcome yourself. And that's a tasty ending to a luscious theatrical package.

Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express
Through March 3 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, Playhouse Square, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000,

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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