In 1945, when legendary British mystery writer Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976) transformed her 1938 Hercule Poirot novel, Appointment with Death, into a taut three-act whodunit for the London stage, she removed Poirot from the vivid cosmopolitan cast of characters haunting the lounge of the King Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem, and she changed the identity of the murderer. But the victim — the odious, overbearing, ugly American Mrs. Ada Caroline Boynton (played to loathsome perfection by Marilee Spell in the current University Theatre at N.C. State production) — and the palpable atmosphere of intrigue remains the same, thanks to UT director of theater John C. McIlwee’s suspenseful staging.
Having assembled an outstanding cast of community-theater veterans and advanced NCSU student actors, McIlwee gleefully sets about ginning up the requisite air of suspicion, expertly emphasizing the abundant clues and red herrings in Christie’s clever script. The plot unfolds on scenic designer and UT technical director Crawford “Corky” Pratt’s splendidly detailed set, which is expertly lit by lighting designer and UT senior associate director Terri L. Janney. The impressive array of handsome period costumes, deftly designed by McIlwee and Lisa Tireman and nicely varied to accent the nationalities of the wearers, also add authenticity — and a dash of humor — to the proceedings.
Marilee Spell’s icy impersonation of Mrs. Boynton is so good that the room temperature seems to drop 10 degrees every time she is onstage. A former prison warden with a sadistic streak and a bad heart, Mrs. Boynton absolutely terrorizes her three grown stepchildren — Lennox (Will Sanders), Raymond (Joel T. Horton), and Ginervra (Meghan Witzke) — much to the consternation of her indignant daughter-in-law and principal caretaker, the former nurse Nadine (Collette Rutherford), who barely suppresses her outrage in order to keep her marriage to Lennox intact.
Meanwhile, two highly observant physicians — French Dr. Theodore Gerard (UT acting coach Fred Gorelick) and British Dr. Sarah King (Kendall Rileigh) — and the snobbish, smugly superior, and supremely self-centered former chorus girl Lady Westholme (JoAnne Dickinson) cannot help but observe Mrs. Boynton’s heartless bullying of everyone in her orbit. Gorelick, Rileigh, and Dickinson are pips as a world-renowned psychologist, a young general practitioner struggling against the prejudice toward women doctors, and a politically ambitious former showgirl, respectively.
Rutherford is excellent an unhappily married woman with an insufferable mother-in-law; and Witzke is good as the emotionally fragile stepdaughter — just one blink away from a messy breakdown — whom her evil stepmother cruelly provokes and may soon heartlessly institutionalize.
Sanders and Horton are somewhat enervated as two boys who just cannot cut their stepmother’s apron strings; but Linh B. Schladweiler, Jessie Stewart, Naomi Eckhaus, Robin Dorff, Pepper Jobe, and Gregor McElvogue are delights. Schladweiler is charming as the lovelorn American Jefferson Cope, who is desperately trying to convince Nadine Boynton to abandon the wishy-washy stepmama’s boy whom she married; and Stewart is marvelously mysterious as a pretty young Italian Girl, who seems to pop up every time the plot thickens.
Eckhaus is a wry treat as Miss Amabel Pryce, a British spinster on a solo tour of the Holy Land; and Dorff is highly amusing as British Alderman Higgs, a vacationing minor politician who immediately earns the eternal enmity of Lady Westholme by occupying and refusing to give up the prize first-floor rooms that she thought she had reserved for herself.
Jobe is very funny as a long-suffering Dragoman (i.e., an Arab interpreter and guide), whom Lady Westholme dubs — and peevishly insists on calling Muhammad, completely oblivious to his actual religion (Christianity) and often-repeated but never acknowledged given name (Aisha). And McElvogue is excellent as Colonel Carbery, the dynamic head of the Trans-Jordan police, who rushes to the King Solomon Hotel to investigate the murder — or was it or was it accidental death or death by natural causes? — of mean old Mrs. Boynton.
Robert Kesseler and Dhani Biscocho complete the highly talented cast, playing a Hotel Clerk and the Arab Boy who sweeps up, respectively, in this must-see murder mystery. This second installment of TheatreFest 2005 is another stemwinder.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Appointment with Death (8 p.m. June 3, 3 p.m. June 5, 8 p.m. June 9 and 11, 3 p.m. June 12, and 8 p.m. June 15 and 18) in NCSU’s Thompson Theatre, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $13 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $15 Friday-Saturday ($6 N.C. State students and $11 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $13 Friday-Saturday other students, seniors, and NCSU faculty and staff). 919/515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=DEAT. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/schedule.htm [inactive 2/08]. TheatreFest 2005 Postcard and Order Form: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/theatrefest/Brochure05.pdf [inactive 10/07]. Agatha Christie: The Official Online Home: http://www.agathachristie.com/.
Next up at University Theatre at N.C. State’s TheatreFest 2005 is the 1945 whodunit Appointment with Death by celebrated English detective-story writer and playwright Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976). UT director of theater John C. McIlwee will direct the show, which opens June 2nd and will be performed — in rotating repertory with The Butler Did It and Dial “M” For Murder — through June 18th in NCSU’s Thompson Theatre in Raleigh, NC.
According to Agatha Christie: The Official Online Home, the stage version of Appointment with Death is based on the 1938 Hercule Poirot novel by the same name; but by the time Christie’s play based on her novel debuted on March 31, 1945 at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, “Christie [had] removed Poirot from the adaptation of her novel and changed the murderer as well. The plot still centers on the murder of Mrs. Boynton, a cruel and overbearing family matriarch, and is set amid the ancient ruins of Petra. Joan Hickson, who would later become a popular television Miss Marple, was a member of the original cast.”
(Note: The disappointing 1988 motion-picture version of Appointment with Death, directed by Michael Winner from a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer [Sleuth], Peter Buckman, and Winner, was based on the novel and starred Peter Ustinov as the legendary mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.)
Director John McIlwee says, “I have never seen the play before, and I have never read it in this form until University Theatre was looking for an Agatha Christie to fit into our summer season of mysteries. I know the story from the novel and the old film.”
He adds, “I enjoy shows set in the 1930s and am attracted to the research I do in order to set the ‘tone’ and atmosphere of this era. I always enjoy mysteries and am especially fond of the Agatha Christie pieces. This is the seventh one that I have either directed, designed, or acted in over the years.”
McIlwee says, “Dame Agatha Christie’s theatrical version of her novel is set in the King Solomon Hotel, where tourists are arriving to enjoy the local sights. Dr. Theodore Gerard(Fred Gorelick) meets a young colleague, Dr. Sarah King (Kendall Rileigh), and strikes up a conversation about the extremely interesting and strange American family in residence in the hotel. The younger Boyntons are under the strong influence of their domineering and evil stepmother, Ida (Marilee Spell). Dr. King has fallen in love with the youngest son, Raymond (Joel Horton), and is desperately trying to save him from the miserable life he leads under Mrs. Boynton’s tyrannical rule. Everyone in the hotel, from aristocratic Lady Westholme (JoAnne Dickinson) to bombastic Alderman Higgs (Robin Dorff), have reason to dislike the old lady; and it falls to Colonel Carberry (Gregor McIlvogue) to discover if dislike can lead to murder!”
In addition to director John McIlwee, who co-designed the show’s costumes with Lisa Tireman, the UT production team includes assistant director Katherine Fuller, set designer Crawford “Corky” Pratt, and lighting designer Terri L. Janney.
McIlwee says the set for the show is a Middle Eastern hotel lobby; the lighting is “moody, hot, and evocative of a desert city”; and the costumes are “late 1930s traveling ensembles, with influences from France, Great Britain, America, and the Middle East.”
He adds, “Christie’s plots are so involved — and so many people must have a strong motive for murder — that it takes a lot of concentration to keep pointing the finger in a lot of different directions at the same time. This play is no exception, and it requires crisp pacing and strong, varied characterizations on the part of the actors to keep the audiences involved in which direction the story goes at any given moment…. [There are n]o major [directorial] challenges[; it is] just important to draw the audience’s focus to clues and actions that ultimately answer ‘whodunit!’”
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Appointment with Death (8 p.m. June 2 and 3, 3 p.m. June 5, 8 p.m. June 9 and 11, 3 p.m. June 12, and 8 p.m. June 15 and 18) in NCSU’s Thompson Theatre, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $13 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $15 Friday-Saturday ($6 N.C. State students and $11 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $13 Friday-Saturday other students, seniors, and NCSU faculty and staff). 919/515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=DEAT. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/schedule.htm [inactive 2/08]. TheatreFest 2005 Postcard and Order Form: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/theatrefest/Brochure05.pdf [inactive 10/07]. Agatha Christie: The Official Online Home: http://www.agathachristie.com/.