Murder on the Nile by Agatha Christie. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jamie Klassel, Kathleen Wise and Oliver Wadsworth; rehearsal photo provided
"But, you. . . I liked you."
Agatha Christieís well received 1937 novel "Death on the Nile" was translated into a theatrical piece in 1944 by Christie herself. Tired of her well-loved hero Hercule Poirot, she wrote the detective out of the play, curtailed the plot by eliminating about a dozen major characters with more than half a dozen prime suspects among them, changed many of the character names and almost succeeded in creating an entirely new piece from the basic plot of her novel. When the play opened on Broadway in September, 1946, it featured character actor Halliwell Hobbes, movie heart-throb David Manners and up-and-coming starlet Diana Barrymore in principal roles. The play only ran twelve performances and hasnít had a main-stem revival ever.
You can see Dame Agathaís play for a while at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont where a company of bright young things have taken on the challenge of making us forget the superb film, the excellent novel while ignoring the absence of the authorís most endurable detective. For someone totally new to Christie there may be trouble with the languid opening as each character becomes established. For those who are very familiar with the piece there could be head-scratching and some "mmm-mmm-mmming" going on as new versions of beloved characters come to the fore. By the final curtain it will all be worth it. Christie basically gives us the same old ending, only the journey there is a new and different and challenging one. Any actors want to join in the fun? There may be room as characters in this play do get bumped off regularly and more of that is promised.
A terrific set by Sue Rees and elegant costumes by Emily Pepper bring us superbly into the time period of the play which is, I think, 1937. McGuffins, those misleading clues, abound. Twelve characters weave in and out of the story. Unlike the novel of the film (Death on the Nile, in both cases), the play remains in one setting, the observation saloon of the River Nile Steamer Lotus. Combining characters such as Marie Van Schuyler and Mrs. Allerton are merged into the character of Helen ffoliot-ffoulkes while Cornelia Robson and Miss Bowers become Christina Grant. William Smith is a combination of Mr. Fanthorp and Mr. Ferguson and the three characters of Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Andrew Pennington become Canon Ambrose Pennefather.
The Doyles become the Mostyns and there are other changes as well.
The Mostyns are played by Kathleen Wise and William Connell. They are a most handsome couple. The actors show us that they are deeply in love and their mutual friend, turned mutual enemy, Jacqueline, is played by Jamie Klassel. Klassel does a creditable job in the role, but a more sophisticated lady might have brought just that much more to the role. Klassel felt a bit too young for the circumstances to evolve the way they do. Wise is a lovely and intelligent Kay and Connell is fittingly handsome and suitably devious.
Rose Marie Perfect is practically her last name in everything she does, but somehow her character emerged as a bit wooden and stiff. She seemed to loosen up a bit toward the end of the second act, however, and that was good for the play. Her niece Christina, was played by Christie Escobar and she was charming and lovely in the role.
As the Canon Pennefather Oliver Wadsworth holds the stage in his tight-fisted grasp. He does a wonderful job as the controlling pastor who plays detective even while exposing himself as a prime suspect in the principal murder - yes, thereís more than one. Melissa Lusk is almost his match as Louise, the maid.
Quincy Dunn-Baker is a surly Smith and later in the play a charming Smith. Go figure. David Alastair Lewis is an excellent Dr. Bessner making his hypodermic needle into a much sought for light motive.
For all thatís good in this Christie play, for all thatís there and all thatís missing, I say you owe it to yourself to see how a masterful creator of detective fiction could reinterpret her own work for a new and different medium. There arenít many opportunities in this life to do such a thing and itís worth it.
Murder on the Nile plays through August 15 at the Dorset Theatre Festival located at 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-5777.