REVIEW: Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE Brings Mystery, Unease To The Fire Hall Stage

Published on March 28, 2018 by   ·   No Comments

None 04With the star-studded adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that came out last year, perennially popular mystery legend Agatha Christie is once again a hot commodity in entertainment circles, and the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre is capturing their own piece of that renewed interest with their latest production, And Then There Were None.  Directed by Kirsten Dauphinais, the play finds 10 strangers invited to a deserted mansion on Soldier Island by the mysterious and elusive Mrs. Owen.  As the boat leaves for the night and the collection of oddballs settles in, strange things start to happen causing the guests to wonder just who their host really is – and what exactly his or her actual motive might be.

The 1939 novel is Agatha Christie’s most popular work, the best-selling mystery in the world and one of the top 10 best-selling books of all time.  It was adapted for the stage by Christie in 1943 with a newer, slightly happier ending (the ending which is seen at the Fire Hall), though a special production in 1944 restored the novel’s original ending, as did a 2005 adaptation by Kevin Elyot.  All versions feature the same cast of morally dubious characters lured to an island where they soon are murdered one by one by a mysterious killer.  After dinner, a gramophone recording is played where a mysterious voice accuses all of those assembled of causing, whether directly or indirectly, the death of one or more individuals and escaping their deserved justice; the voice gives them the opportunity to present a defense of their actions.

Thomas Rogers (David Kary) is a rather snooty butler who, along with his wife, Mrs. Rogers (Brooke Pesch), is preparing the home for the arrival of the guests.  They grouse and complain, Rogers especially rolling his eyes at what he presumes are the guests’ moral and economic failings, but generally keep the house running as they have been instructed to do.

None 02Vera Claythorne (Leslie Lekatz) is a vibrant young secretary to Mrs. Owen, though she was engaged by post and has never met her employer.  She soon catches the eye of Philip Lombard (Robert Paul Simon), a disgraced army officer whose rough and ready presence keeps the plot moving, and he is one of only two guests who freely admits that he is responsible for the crime of which he is accused.

Anthony Marston (Andrew Huovinen) is a shallow speedster whose spotty driving record landed him an invitation to the weekend holiday; he’s neck and neck in the “most unlikable” contest with uptight and spitefully religious Emily Brent (Theresa Knox).  General MacKenzie (Chris Gust) is a sort of doddering old war veteran who seems to understand the happenings on the island better than the others and resigns himself to his fate as the rough and blustery Blore (Scott Hepper) and methodical trial judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Rob Howard) spend much of their time trying to unravel the mystery of their unseen executioner.

The ten potential victims are rounded out by the often addled Dr. Armstrong who is, ironically enough, a nerve specialist.  They are all ferried to the island by Freda Narracutt (Tina Wilkening), a gender-swapped character from the original script that provides some interesting contrast to the male-dominated action of the show.

I won’t give away too many of the twists, in case you aren’t familiar with the source material; most of the fun of this show is guessing who will be next to meet their grisly end – and how!  There are some inventive deaths in the show, but all are organized around a nursery rhyme framed above the fireplace: “Ten Little Soldiers.”  As guests begin to die, each death resembles the next line in the rhyme in some way, and a clay soldier from the mantle disappears.  As the body count rises and the guests become more and more sure that the murderer is actually among them, paranoia ensues and all of the feigned civility of the first evening’s meal is thrown to the wayside.

The actors do well with their British accents and you can tell that they have all put some thoughtful work into developing the characters and giving each one a dynamic presence on the stage.  There are some rough spots – Gust’s General is one of the most fully realized characters of the play, but his mumbly delivery, while endearing to the character, is sometimes difficult to hear from the back row – but the actors have a great chemistry with one another.  The show is nearly three hours long, but the rapport in this ensemble is such that you barely notice the time passing and nothing feels like it drags.  It’s a taut little mystery that is paced well and also staged expertly to keep you guessing until the last body falls.

That’s the main part of the review, and for those who just want a sample of the story as you’re deciding whether or not to go, that’s probably enough.  My goal with these reviews is never to discourage people from attending and supporting local theatre, and I think this show is absolutely entertaining and worth seeing despite any criticism I might present below.  For those who choose to continue on, I want to dig a little deeper and share my two main criticisms of the show, one of which is somewhat minor, the other…less so.  Read on at your own leisure – and peril!

(My critique will be in purple – if you want to ignore me being a Negative Nancy and just want show/ticket information, skip to the black text at the very bottom of this review!)

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First, this is the second show in a row that I’ve seen at the Fire Hall that features a physically impossible space.  Much like the house in Over The River and Through The Woods, which had an exterior window facing into what would, by design, also be the kitchen, this house features a prominent entry in the middle of the stage: French doors with a lovely Art Deco sort of design that open into a grand living room where most of the action takes place.  The door is flanked by windows with a similar look, and the effect is really striking and expertly achieved.  It’s a gorgeous set, clearly built lovingly by the various carpenters (including many of the cast) who are credited in the program.  It’s also impossible.  The problem?  On either side of this grand entrance are doors that ostensibly lead to other parts of the house.  The constraints of the Fire Hall stage mean that the walkway tot he main entrance is tight, and characters must approach from right up against the wall on either the left or the right – exactly where the phsyical space of the house should be, as suggested by the interior doors.  The walls that hold these doors are angled ever so slightly, perhaps to suggest that the house has an angled facade with the entrance nestled between two jutting wings.  Unfortunately, the Fire Hall just doesn’t have the space to pull this off, as characters would have to be able to approach the door from straight on to achieve this.  I know it probably seems like I’m being too nit-picky, and for most theatre-goers I probably am (I’m sure most of the patrons of this show hadn’t even noticed), but I’m a technical theatre nerd and part of what makes up the total equation of a show is space in which it is set.  If the space doesn’t make sense or isn’t possible (and that isn’t part of the plot), it can diminish the experience.  It’s already pushing one’s belief that the main entrance of this exquisite English country home also serves as the primary gathering place – there would be loads of parlors and salons and lounges for entertaining guests, like an old game of Clue! – but that can be more easily overlooked than a disregard for physics.

Now on to my bigger concern.  I want to be careful with how I say this because I have been involved with a lot of theatrical productions; I know the blood and sweat and tears and heart that goes into it, and I love when people make strong character choices.  I’d always rather see a campy, over the top character to a bland, one-note character any day.  However, there was one character in the show that really got under my skin and leaft me feeling about uneasy about what I was watching: Andrew Huovinen’s portrayal of Anthony Marston.  The character is already written to be rather one-dimensional: he’s a callous lout who not only admits his crime but who professes to be more concerned with the fact that he lost his license for a year than the fact that he ran over and killed two young people.  Going in, there’s not a lot about this character that is likeable, and I’m sure there are plenty of cues from the script that would direct an actor to make certain choices, given that the “sissy” archetype was prevalent at the time that the play was written (if you aren’t familiar with this archetype, The Celluloid Closet is a film that has a great discussion, as well as choice clips to illustrate the trope – I tried to find a relevant clip on YouTube and failed, so I’m just including the trailer below).

Huovinen latches on to that archetype and takes every stereotype of the nelly queen and milks it to the point of absurdity: Marston transforms from a callous playboy, an entitled dandy with little regard for anyone but himself, into a prancing, flouncing, pearl-clutching joke.  Yes, it’s a portrayal that’s meant to get laughs, but it’s the type of laughs that come from mean-spirited interpretations of the lives of real effeminate men (regardless of their sexual orientation).  It’s not just that the portrayal is effeminate; on the contrary, I love effeminate gay men, and there are some days when I’m very proud to be one (most days I’m too tired and crabby to venture too far toward either gendered extreme).  I think Titus Andromedon from Netflix’s hilarious comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one of, if not the, best characters on TV, LGBTQ or otherwise.  There are so many wonderful moments with him that I think are true comic genius, but I’ll share one of my favorites: a Beyonce parody from the third season when Titus deals with a rocky relationship by “lemonading.”

So what makes a character like Titus different?  Titus is funny, and he’s feminine, but he’s not funny because he’s feminine.  Him being feminine isn’t the joke, at least not in a way that establishes masculinity as privileged, or that punishes him for being femininity.  The sissy archetype is borne from the idea that men who don’t “act like men” are somehow less than, deserving of ridicule and even punishment (up to and including death; it isn’t surprising to me that Marston is the first of the assembled criminals to meet his demise).  If Titus has things blow up in his face or he faces repercussions, they come from his own choices, from his own agency, not from the fact that he is unable or unwilling to perform “appropriately” for his gender.  

None 05Sissies are supposed to remind us that effeminate boys grow up to be gay, and to be gay is a terrible horrible thing because…well, because we need to enforce a system of misogyny and homophobia to keep people “acting right” in relation to their perceived gender.  I found Huovinen’s performance difficult to watch as it called up memories of those sissy archetypes and the way that those portrayals (and the ways they were weaponized against me growing up queer in small town North Dakota) affected my development and my ability to live a joyful life.  I was relieved when he keeled over and disappeared from the plot, but it was the kind of relief one feels tinged with guilt and anger at having pieces of oneself twisted and changed into objects of ridicule and put on display to be mocked.  At any second I feel like we’re going to cut to a rabid Faux News anchor calling me a “snowflake” or a “social justice warrior” for pointing out the fact that media portrayals do, in fact, have an impact beyond their viewing, but I believe that it was irresponsible to bring that sort of characterization to life in the way that it was presented, and I believe that it was irresponsible of the director not to help mold that portrayal into something more dynamic and human.  You don’t have to agree with me; there are a lot of people out there who probably won’t.  But since I pay the rent on this little spot on the web, I can get as caught up in my feelings as I damn well please.  Write your own review if you want to argue with me; I probably won’t agree with you, but I’ll probably publish it.  We can be firm in our convictions and still be compassionate, and I think discussion and debate, when tempered with respect and kindness, will always enrich us and never diminish us.

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There are still three performances left for you to catch And Then There Were None: this Thursday through Saturday (March 29 – 31) at 7:30 pm.  Tickets are $16, $13 for seniors, students, and military.  You can get tickets by calling 701-777-4090 or at the door.

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