Agatha Christie’s “Murder on The Orient Express”

Cortland Repertory Theater
Agatha Christie’s “Murder on The Orient Express”
Review by Molly Lane

Cortland Repertory Theater (CRT) opened its 51st Summer season with Agatha Christie’s chestnut, “Murder on The Orient Express.” (Full disclosure: up until June 6, preview night for the Guild, this reviewer had never set foot inside the theater. Suffice it to say it is exactly what patrons and longtime supporters have always known: CRT is a little gem of a venue: historically august, welcoming and intimate.)

Apart from two new players, this is the original cast from last year’s edition when, after three performances, cast members caught COVID and production was shut down. You could sense that this band of actors really enjoys working with one another, and it is such close familiarity that ultimately informs and enriches the overall plot.

Michael Antico’s portrayal of the iconic Hercule Poirot was a refreshing return to the detective of Christie’s novels, which portrayed “that odd little man” with his “little grey cells”–not merely as a vain, one-dimensional bore fixated on waxing his moustaches, but rather a laser-focused, modest and eloquent sleuth. Antico infuses his Poirot with both warmth and sternness, as well as a hint of sadness when his brilliance as a detective leads him to a conclusion that defies everything that he holds to be true about meting out  justice.   Nicholas Wilder as “Monsieur Bouc” and Catherine Gaffney as “Helen Hubbard” provided top-notch comic relief, as did Cara D’Emanuele’s “Princess Dragomiroff” and Rebecca Tucker’s “Greta Ohlsson”. Rounding out the cast were notable performances by Anna Gion as “Countess Andrenyi” and Derek Powell as “Michel the Conductor.” Overall, the cast delivered a cohesive ensemble piece.

The play’s production value was excellent. The dining car, where much of the action takes place, was set against the backdrop of the sleeping cars. They were elegantly designed but functional, with frosted windows that created a frame for the dramatic backlighting and ominous soundtrack at tense moments in the show.   Set in 1934, other details that helped add an air of authenticity were the impeccable wardrobe pieces, female leads sporting that very 1930’s look with red nail polish and sparkly jewelry on delicate wrists, an abundance of tweed on the men, and just the right amount of tinny jazz piping through the sound system.   The subtle lighting changes (deep, calming blue at rest, blood-red at tense junctures) did wonders in setting the changing moods.

There’s a reason that, apart from the Holy Bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie is the bestselling author of all time. Her themes are universal: greed, revenge, justice, human frailty. And fans are great at not spoiling the “who” of whodunit. (“Mousetrap”, anyone?) But there are also inherent risks in staging a beloved, oft-produced play: too safe; too predictable; yawn. However, it is to Kerby and the entire cast and crew’s credit that what could have been another tired train ride turned out to be a surprising encore: to hop on board the Orient Express for a repeat trip is a well-savored pleasure. And the final reveal was just as sweet.

“Murder on The Orient Express” closes Friday, June 16. There’s still time to see the show and support your local theater.   While you’re there, explore the pavilion and its history. Stand on the newly rebuilt dock and soak in the beauty of Little York Lake, and marvel that there is a place like CRT in your own backyard.

Murder on the Orient Express runs through June 16

Director: Kerby Thompson   June 7-16
Scenic Designer: Darin V. Himmerich
Lighting Designer: Matthew Webb
Costume Designer: Wendi R. Zea
Sound Designer:  Seth Asa Sengel
Properties Designer: Taylor Barr
Production Stage Manager: Melanie Ernst
Technical Director: Dana White, Jr.
Photographer: Eric Behnke, courtesy of Cortland Repertory Theatre

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