March 2, 2014 in City

Review: Spokane Civic Theatre’s ‘Mousetrap’ a playful whodunit

By The Spokesman-Review
If you go

Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” runs through March 16. Tickets are available through TicketsWest outlets or by calling (509) 325-2507.

It’s a setup you’ve no doubt heard before. On a stormy, snowy night in 1949, an investigator visits the married proprietors of an English guesthouse called Monkswell Manor and their four tenants. A murder has been committed earlier that day in London, he tells them, and the killer is likely on his or her way to the rural security of Monkswell. When another body turns up in the main hall, however, it’s clear that the murderer has already arrived.

These oft-imitated circumstances are typical of mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s work – suspects are confined to a single location while a detective pieces together evidence to determine which of them is a murderer. But her play “The Mousetrap,” which she expanded from her 1947 radio play “Three Blind Mice,” has remained a juggernaut since its 1952 premiere: It’s still a mainstay on London’s West End, where it has run continuously for a record 61 years and over 25,000 individual performances.

And yet the play’s ending remains a highly guarded secret. (These days a quick Google search will easily spoil it for you, but where’s the excitement in that?) Either before or after the performance, the audience will be urged not to reveal whodunit.

It’s that kind of playful secrecy that keeps audiences coming back to “The Mousetrap,” and it’s also in keeping with Christie’s own reserved, darkly comic attitude toward morbidity: There’s a certain humor to be found in buttoned-down parlor room behavior being rudely interrupted by the appearance of a corpse. It’s like “Upstairs, Downstairs” by way of Alfred Hitchcock.

The show isn’t often performed outside of London (the Christie estate has kept it on a tight leash), which is why the Spokane Civic Theatre production is such a welcome surprise. For many (including myself), this will be the first opportunity to see Christie’s most famous mystery unfold onstage, and for that reason alone it shouldn’t be missed. As directed by Wes Deitrick, “The Mousetrap” illustrates why London audiences have flocked to it for decades: It’s still a lot of fun.

Of course, part of that fun is that nobody is above suspicion, and the play becomes a game of deductive reasoning for the viewer. Christie designed it so that every line of dialogue could have a hidden double meaning, every alibi can be poked full of holes, and every dubious move or stammer or contradiction is as good as an admission of guilt. As Sgt. Trotter (Jaylan Renz) investigates and interrogates each character, we start to wonder:

Is it Christopher Wren (Nicolas W. Miller), the flighty young architect whose interests lean toward the macabre? Or Major Metcalf (Paul Emerson), the retired military officer? Or Mrs. Boyle (Kristen Deitrick), who has a disturbing connection to a recent criminal trial? Or Miss Casewell (Hazel Bean), who’s vocal about her troubled past? Or Mr. Paravicini (J.P. O’Shaughnessy), the unannounced guest of questionable origin? Or could it be the very caretakers of Monkswell Manor, Mollie (Kris Crocker) and Giles Ralston (Daniel D. Baumer), who seem to be concealing secrets from one another?

In the course of “The Mousetrap,” one of the aforementioned characters ends up dead at the hands of another. But even in following Christie’s own rules of deduction (wherein the least likely suspect is the culprit), you might still be surprised by the outcome. I could hear a wave of realization roll over the audience as the identity of the killer slowly dawned on them: There were oh’s, ah’s, a couple of muted gasps, and I saw a woman in front of me lightly slap the arm of her seatmate, as if to signal to him that he had, in fact, known all along.

That a 60-year-old play can elicit that kind of a response from a 2014 audience is a testament to the staying power of “The Mousetrap,” and the Civic has a done a great job in bringing the landmark play to deliciously witty life. The actors all seem to be having a blast (I particularly liked Miller and O’Shaughnessy as the more eccentric guests, and Crocker has some effective emotional scenes near the back half), and the set, adorned with overstuffed furniture and ominous suits of armor, is intricately designed.

It’s one of the most purely entertaining shows Civic has offered in a while, a clever, well-paced reminder that Agatha Christie deserves her title as Queen of Crime.

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