Agatha Christie mystery fans will want to board the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of Murder on the Orient Express, which opened last weekend in the largest of three stages at the Rep. Orient-Express closes the theater’s 2021-22 season.
The play begins on a dark stage. Writer Agatha Christie’s most famous detective, Belgian-born Hercule Poirot, steps into the limelight to address the audience. In a dark and measured way, he tells the audience what to expect. It promises an evening filled with suspicion, cunning, romance and revenge.
What Poirot fails to reveal is that Murder on the Orient Express was originally intended to be part of the Milwaukee Rep’s 2020 season. Temporarily “derailed” by the pandemic, Orient-Express had a very long wait before leaving the station.
Almost like magic, the dark opening scene transforms into a luxury hotel in exotic Istanbul, circa 1934. Dressed in his trademark derby, portly Poirot (played by Steven Rattazzi) enters the dining room. Poirot is spotted at a table by an old friend, Monsieur Bout (played by Chicago actor Gregory Linington). Bout plans to take the same route. As one of the railway company’s executives, Bout promises a journey that will be “poetry on wheels”.
Of course, with the witty Agatha Christie as chief engineer, there’s bound to be foul play before the train reaches its final destination. Over the years, East Express, one of Christie’s most famous novels, has had several film versions and even made-for-TV movies. It was up to the famous playwright Ken Ludwig to bring his version of Orient-Express at the scene. Ludwig, perhaps best known for the Tony Award-winning comedy, Lend me a tenor, had many successes on both sides of the Atlantic. His popular stage version of Orient-Express opened in 2017 and has been rolling around ever since.
Perhaps to the dismay of some Agatha Christie purists, Ludwig eliminates certain characters from the novel, while increasing the comedy. Of course, murder itself is no laughing matter. But the laughs flow well into the dialogue, and they bring a lightness to this otherwise serious undertaking.
Train passengers come from all over the world
Under the able direction of Annika Boras, this Orient-Express drive at the right speed. It takes a while before the audience gets to know the characters (and their alibis, once the murder is uncovered). This particular journey attracts various passengers from all over the world. A cacophony of overtones nearly overwhelms the dialogue, though the excellent cast does an incredible job of making every word understandable. The passenger list includes: Mary Denbenham, a young English girl in love with a Scottish colonel; Helen Hubbard, an American loudmouth from Minnesota; Countess Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat who is escorted by her paid assistant – a low-key, low-key Swede named Greta. There is also Samuel Ratchett, a New York businessman with a dark past, and his secretary, Hector McQueen. Michel, the final chef de train, ensures that everyone is comfortable on board the train.
Many of the show’s cast members will be familiar to Chicago audiences, as they are frequently seen in various productions in the city. Emjoy Gavino, who grew up in Milwaukee and Chicago, plays Mary, the Englishwoman. Park Krausen plays the Swedish Greta and Will Mobley appears as Hector, the secretary. Minnesota loudmouth Helen is played by Gail Rastorfer, and bandleader Michel is played by Adam Rose. Finally, the Hungarian Countess Andrenyi is played by Diana Coates.
Each character is lavishly dressed in period attire by Chicago costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg, and scenes are warmly lit in a nostalgic glow by Noele Stollmack. Sound designer Andre J. Pluess sets the mood with eerie train whistles, rumbling train engines and, occasionally, the sound of squealing brakes. The accompanying music before and after the show also allows the audience to escape to the 1930s.
While all the characters get plenty of time to shine, it’s the production’s monstrous setting that gets a lot of attention. Milwaukee Rep is the only company with enough resources to install a double gun in its main theater. Luciana Stecconi’s set rotates fully to display a lavishly appointed dining car on one side, and a cutaway of multiple berths (and the hallway) on the other. A revolution also displays the luxurious exterior of the train.
Sometimes the twin spins in tandem, giving a cinematic effect that those who have seen the musical hamilton will recognize. Boras, as a director, uses this effect to the fullest, whether a scene only requires a romantic couple or the entire contingent on the train.
As for the plot itself, Orient-Express leaves a handful of clues that only the most skilled listeners (and observers) will grasp. The highly stylized acting doesn’t make the audience care whether this character or character is involved in the murder. The cast creates memorable, even engaging characters. A catfight between aristocrats (Princess Dragomiroff and Countess Andrenyi) is cleverly staged, as are interrupted love scenes between Colonel Arbuthnot (Milwaukee’s Jonathan Wainwright) and Mary (Emjoy Gavino). While each character displays their weird quirks, the weirdest character is definitely Park Krausen as the wise, religious, and often scared Greta.
Choreographed set changes
Some of the play’s early set changes are so dazzling that they’re also worth mentioning. They are as well timed as a Swiss watch. Machinists, disguised as waiters, seem to come out of nowhere. They carry wooden chairs or bistro-sized tables around the set in seemingly chaotic glee. (One wrong move and a waiter might end up limping out.) Taken together, the moves convey a ballet quality, so every prop seems to arrive (or disappear) in the blink of an eye. The piece’s choreographer, Jacqueline Burnett, is a member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
Back on the train, the murder case is finally solved (by Hercule Poirot). But, in an interesting twist, Poirot is then faced with a dilemma that challenges his values between good and evil. It’s interesting to watch Poirot weigh his options, and Rattazzi brilliantly turns this puzzle around in his mind.
Finally, Poirot returns to an almost empty stage to tell how the stories of the various characters ended. It’s the fitting end to a production that’s both polished and entertaining from start to finish.
Murder on the Orient Express continues at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse through July 1. The duration is 2 hours and 10 minutes, with an intermission. The theater is located at 108 E. Wells St. For more information, visit milwaukeerep.com or call 414-224-9490. Wearing a mask inside is strongly recommended.
Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theater Critics Association for over 30 years. She served on the organization’s executive committee and held a number of committee chairs. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. His work also appears on several theater-related websites.
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