Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 30
 
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
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Music/Theater


FIRST VICTIM?: Dr. Armstrong (Andy Hoover, kneeling) cares for the recumbent housemaid Mrs. Rogers (Shannon Lee Clair), as the tense, trapped houseguests look on: (left to right) Detective Blore (Justin Levine), the socialite Marston (Glenn Brown), secretary and ex-governess Vera Claythorne (Izzie Steele), the adventurer Lombard (John Hardin), the retired judge Wargrave (William Busbee), the butler Rogers (Robert Walsh) and the religious spinster Emily Brent (Heather May) — but who is the murderer, and when will he or she strike next? Princeton Summer Theater's production of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None)" plays for one more weekend at the Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

Mystery, Murder, Suspense and High Drama Command the Stage In 1943 Agatha Christie Classic at Princeton Summer Theater

Donald Gilpin

British novelist J.K. Rowling, with her grand finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released last Saturday, may be the publishing phenomenon of the twentieth-first century, but she has yet to top her fellow countrywoman Agatha Christie, who wrote from the 1920s to the 1970s and counts her book sales in the hundreds of millions, plus a slew of popular stage and screen adaptations. Their chosen genres, characters, settings, and audiences differ — with Christie ensconced in the post-Victorian world of adult murder mysteries, but both rely on a boundless human fascination with psychology, the battle between good and evil, and the astonishing contrivances of a brilliant creative mind at work.

Princeton Summer Theater’s current production of Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None), perhaps her best-loved novel (1939) and play (1943), provides sparkling evidence of Christie’s timeless appeal. The contrivances may be familiar, plot and plausibility may wear thin, the characterizations may seem a stretch for the youthful PST company, but this production is fun to watch. And this accomplished PST group, under the professional direction of Craig Jorczak and technical direction of Allen Grimm, sets an impressively high standard of performance and production values.

Ten Little Indians takes place in the well appointed pre-World War II living room of the unaccountably absent Mr. Owen, on an island off the southern coast of England. Eight guests from a wide spectrum of British society, along with the butler and his wife the housemaid, have been mysteriously summoned or invited through cleverly contrived decoy letters. They suddenly find themselves trapped, cut off from the mainland with no boat, no phone lines, and a fierce storm raging outside.

These are the “ten little Indians.” In accordance with the words of the children’s song and a poem left on the mantelpiece which cryptically suggests the manner of each person’s demise, they are to be eliminated one by one. Ms. Christie and the PST ensemble dramatically follow through on this gripping premise.

Suspicions arise in every corner, nerves fray, and the suspense mounts steadily along with the dead bodies. Clues abound and the red herrings may overwhelm even the most astute whodunit mavens, as the plot twists and turns with increasing speed.

Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None)" runs July 26-29, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and also at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call (609) 258-7062. For further information visit www.princetonsummertheater.org.

The character complexities and foibles are no less engaging than the plot thrills, as all of the visitors are discovered to have their own secrets, hidden crimes, and moral failures. No one is innocent.

The ensemble here, a collection of undergraduates and recent graduates of Princeton University, Rutgers and NYU Tisch School of the Arts, is outstanding. They are focused, spirited and savvy in creating these challenging characters, and mostly convincing in accomplishing some daunting stretches in age and culture. Except for a couple of muddy moments in the opening ten minutes, the British accents come across credibly and clearly. Individually and collectively, the PST company consistently displays fine talent and the rich rewards of intelligent, thorough rehearsal.

Robert Walsh and Shannon Lee Clair, as the elderly couple, butler and housemaid, with a skeleton in their closet, establish an appropriate air of nervous respectability; while Izzie Steele, as Mr. Owen’s stylish secretary, delivers a highly sympathetic and appealing character study, deftly attempting to hide her own secret regarding the death of her young charge during a previous job as governess.

John Hardin’s portrayal of a brash, revolver-carrying soldier of fortune successfully injects a repeated note of danger and excitement into the proceedings; while Glenn Brown, as the flirtatious, self-absorbed socialite, and Justin Levine, as the private investigator given to his own dishonesty and deceptions, provide attention-grabbing conflict, speculation, and suspicious behavior.

Osei Kwakye’s retired World War I general — lonely, idiosyncratic and given to musings about his deceased wife, presents another intriguing figure. Heather May’s puritanical spinster vividly displays her moral and physical rigidity and hypocrisy in every word and gesture. William Busbee’s eminent, take-charge judge, known for his harsh sentences, displays the appropriate authority and duplicity. Andy Hoover is strong and effective as the controlling doctor, a reformed alcoholic with a dire mistake in his past. All contribute significantly to the confusion, terror, and excitement, as death strikes and they realize that the killer must be “one of us.”

Mr. Jorczak’s direction delineates the characters effectively and moves the action clearly and rapidly, with the only hitch being an upstage chair that from time to time conceals certain characters and their behaviors from a portion of the audience. Mr. Jorczak was a director and company member of PST two years ago, and since then has graduated from NYU Tisch’s Playwrights Horizon School and performed professionally in New York City.

Production designer Allen Grimm, veteran professional from Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, has created an elegant set in black, white, and red — simple, functional, and refreshingly different from the usual Agatha Christie emphasis on dark Victorian décor. Mr. Grimm’s lighting and sound by Mr. Jorczak and Mr. Levine are also on target in contributing to the mood and action.

Crime is terribly revealing,” Christie’s most famous detective Hercule Poirot muses in The ABC Murders. “Try and vary your methods as you will … your soul is revealed by your actions.” Princeton Summer Theater’s Ten Little Indians offers a first-rate evening of theater, a delightful opportunity to enjoy the ingenuity of Agatha Christie, and participate in the intriguing revelations of ten fascinating characters.

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