NCSU's TheatreFest 2016 is a salute to the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie, with a double-dose of murder and mayhem. Opening June 9 is the riotous comedy, Something's Afoot, a royal spoof of the genre that Christie made world famous. This past Thursday marked the opening of one of Christie's own adaptations of her novels to the stage, The Hollow. The novel, written in 1946, was adapted to the stage in 1952 and set a few years in the future, 1959.
Christie's novel of the same name is an Hercule Poirot mystery; the stage version is a cat of a different stripe. When a prominent physician is murdered at one of the many estates that lie just far enough outside London to be thought "in the country," Chief Inspector Colquhoun (Justin Brent Johnson) of Scotland Yard is called in to handle the case.
"The Hollow" is the name of the estate of Sir Henry Angkatell (John McIlwee) and his wife, Lucy (JoAnne Dickenson). The rather extensive grounds lie about eighteen miles outside London, and on this particular Friday evening, the couple is expecting several guests for the weekend. Already in residence is their cousin Henrietta Angkatell (Marisa Markoch), a sculptress who is highly committed to her art. Due at any moment is another cousin, young Miss Midge Harvey (Katie Barrett), who has grown up amongst the Angkatell clan. The guests of honor are Dr. John Christow (Jonathan King) and his wife, Gerda (Alison Lawrence). John is a prominent and respected physician, specializing in exotic diseases. Rounding out the guest list is another Angkatell relation, Edward (Gus Allen), who inherited and lives alone in Ainesworthe, an estate nearby that has remained in the Angkatell name for generations.
Here's the rub: Edward is in love with Henrietta, has been since their school days. Henrietta thinks Edward is a dear, but she's in love with John; the two have been carrying on an affair for about six months now, behind Gerda's back. Gerda is a homebody who is a touch out of her depth at The Hollow; her mind is more on the children the two have, now in the hands of the Christow governess, a Frenchwoman whom Gerda thinks cannot control her headstrong children. But since Edward has eyes for Henrietta, he cannot recognize the fact that Midge is in love with him. And so it goes.
Once the guests have all assembled, they are called to dinner by the Angkatell's very proper British butler, Gudgeon (Danny Norris). But before the group can head to the dining room they are interrupted by the unceremonious arrival of the international film star Miss Veronica Craye (Lynda Clark). Veronica arrives in a snit because she has discovered that the house next door, Dovecote, which she has rented for the season, is completely out of matches (of all things!), and has come a-begging. She is absolutely certain that her sudden appearance will cause a stir and probably give the denizens of The Hollow something to talk about for weeks to come. What she has not counted on is the fact that her sudden arrival puts her face to face with Dr. Christow. It turns out that the two were impassioned lovers some ten years in the past, and the couple parted badly. This sudden reintroduction kindles Veronica's old desire, and she brazenly invites John over after dinner, right in front of John's dumbstruck wife. John (typical man) goes, and he does not arrive back at The Hollow until after 3:00 AM. By noon the next day, John is dead.
John McIlwee dons many hats for this production; in addition to his role as Sir Henry, he has also designed the set, the costumes, and the well-coifed tresses of all the ladies. Director Mia Self has obtained the services of Joshua Reaves for lighting design and Rachel Klem for sound, which includes a wonderfully suspenseful piano composition as the Entr'acte. McIlwee's set is properly luxurious, with huge depictions of modern art on the walls, magnificent French doors to the garden, and suitably gaudy wall sconces. A desk with phone is set stage right, and an open bar is stage left.
The Hollow is a complex and sometimes difficult-to-follow conundrum of a murder, which is carried out with all seriousness by this intrepid cast. There are many red herrings to be had; the only thing we know for sure is that the hand which held the gun that killed John Christow was decidedly female. Other than that, we haven't a clue. Every single woman at The Hollow had reason to want John Christow dead; the question is: which femme fatale actually did the deed? This ensemble cast numbers an even dozen, and each and every one handles his own addition to this splendid plot adroitly. Raleigh's Lynda Clark as vixen Veronica Craye was perfect as the self-centered film star who always gets what she wants. The row she had with John was more than enough to get us wondering if maybe she pulled the trigger. JoAnne Dickenson was magnificently absent-minded as Lady Angkatell. But the stunner of the evening turned out to be John's mousey wife, Gerda. Alison Lawrence was totally unrecognizable, despite her long and storied Raleigh career. She turned in a first-rate performance. The final revelation of the actual culprit, and the truly surprise ending, make for a most splendiferous evening of theatre.
Tickets for The Hollow and Something's Afoot are still available, as well as a few choice seats that are still available for "Dinner with Agatha," a delightful evening to be spent Sunday, June 19, with Dame Agatha Christie, to be lovingly portrayed by TheatreFest's own JoAnne Dickenson. After dinner at the 18.87 Bistro at NCSU's Talley Student Union, tours backstage for TheatreFest's two remarkable shows are on tap. For more information on all these events, see the sidebar.