There’s always a moment where you can turn back before it’s too late! And the “too late” moment of missing Thunderous Productions’ summer offering of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile is quickly approaching! With just a few performances left in the Greenbelt Arts Center black box three-quarters-thrust space, this edgy classic murder mystery will keep you on your toes questioning through to the end. Directed by Rick Starkweather, this is one whodunit whose conclusion will have your spine tingling by the time it unwinds.
As Christie’s characters say, “sometimes the details are not quite nice”, though Thunderous Productions does their best to rise against the challenges of the space and limited budget when it comes to production values. Where they succeed most impressively is with the little things, ironically enough the details, like the porthole windows which have little backdrops to indicate the shift in night and day. The attention to detail with things like that, despite the portholes being tiny, helps lure the audience into the notion that they are on a riverboat cruise down Egypt’s infamous Nile River. Sound Designer James Gonzales enhances this experience as well with the exotic music that underscores a few scenes. The costumes, presumably the work of the cast, come together quite nicely as well— with some fitting more readily into the mid-late 1960’s English and abroad fashion better than others.
The show’s major issue is not lack of curious plot, and not even a lack of good strong characterizations from the principle performers, but rather the sluggish pacing that gums up the overall flow of Christie’s brutally twisting and turning murderous mystery. The gaps are not falling in scenic transition; these shifts seem to flow quite smoothly all things considered, but rather during dialogue exchanges. While the performers create compelling textual deliveries, often at the peak of histrionics or melodrama, there seems to be an inherent pause between one character finishing a block of text or a line and another character starting. If this tightens over the remaining run of the production, the show has a chance of becoming truly impressive.
The other noteworthy, though not entirely disastrous, element of complaint to the production is the way in which accents are handled. The characters may be on a riverboat but the accents featured on the English and non-English characters are taking planes, trains, and automobiles all over Europe. That said, this is only problematic in scenes where speaking happens with haste or at a louder volume and the inconsistency of the accents garbles up what is being said, making it difficult to be heard. However, if you can forgive the migratory flight patterns of these accents and excuse the pacing issues, the performances themselves are quite impressively focused and grounded atop Christie’s thrilling mystery.
Taking up the role of the ship’s Steward, Armaan Tsiyon has a forward sense of stage presence and really slides into the scenes, nearly unnoticed saved for his vivacious costume colors, and exists as a function of the plot. His accent for the character is well-suited and his facial expressions and body language are strong, giving the audience a good sense of how he fits into the puzzle. A similar thing can be said for Annette Landers, playing Louise the cabin girl to the rich Mostyn couple aboard the ship. Dr. Bessner (Jon Marget), despite his indiscernible accent at times, is the epitome of a curmudgeonly yet feisty man of medicine who knows what is best for his patients!
The chemistry between Simon Mostyn (Alexander Gordon) and Kay Mostyn (Christina Wilharm) is simply smitten to the point of sickening. We’ve all seen it; the gooey-gushy-gross lovebirds in love with a high propensity towards public displays of practically lewd affection, Gordon and Wilharm channel that into their initial interactions. Gordon has a firm handle on the excessive amount of expository detail his character is given in the opening scene, using animated facial features with great restraint, which prevents a melodramatic flavor in his character. Wilharm portrays Kay with an exacerbating penchant for entitlement; she augments the wretched characteristics of being bratty and snotty with a simple inflection in her voice, carrying the character to new heights of annoyance. The pair play well against one another, particularly once Jacqueline de Severac (Devonna Burrowes) is thrown into the mix.
Burrowes is a potent pistol (and she carries one too!) when it comes to tackling the role of Jacqueline. Her accent, which is a hybrid-French sound, possesses more consistency than most of the other performers but falls away when she enters moments of hysteria. This is almost preferable to the jumble of sounds that are created by her cast members, because although it becomes clear that her attempt at French is put-on when this happens, she manages to articulate her way through her more histrionic moments with striking clarity. The emotional roller coaster that Burrowes rides is intense; the feelings that she evokes from within the character’s traumatized memories are present and palpable, making her portions of the story most intriguing.
There’s always a three-way something or other happening somewhere or other inside an Agatha Christie. And the three-way here, though not the main romantic angle, is between the mousy Christina (Emily Canavan), the swarthy and suspicious Smith (Jeff Robert) and the bombastically obnoxious Miss Ffoliot-ffoulkes (Trix Whitehall.) Canavan’s character is so mealy and milquetoast that it’s easy to forget she’s even there once the action gets underway, though it’s scripted as such and shouldn’t be held on her shoulders. Robert, who is so sure of his portrayal he makes other folks’ sure, is mindfully present of his stage positioning at all time, and has a strong balance of comic timing when it comes to laying down one-liners. Whitehall is a hoot. Whitehall is a scream. Whitehall is a scene-stealing irritant that crawls under the skin and gnaws her way back out the other side. Whitehall is so thoroughly invested in making the character obnoxious and abrasive that without meaning to she becomes a comedic focal point as things turn grave for other characters.
That just leaves Canon Pennefather (Aref Dajani.) Everyone’s a suspect, except for those who are dead, even the Parson. Dajani’s calm and tranquil mannerisms are impressive; his approach to reactive listening during large swathes of information being blurted out at him is particularly enjoyable. Watch his facial responses; they are subtle, and his overall portrayal is contained, though never lacking in energy. There is a great deal of important things happening to all of the characters, Dajani’s in particular, but watching the various degrees of which he expresses things is a rare treat in this sort of story.
There is a titillating mystery to be solved! There are twists and turns to be experienced and good performances to be witnessed. Overall, the performance is strong and if allowances can be made, a splendid evening can await you at Murder on the Nile.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile plays through July 2, 2017 with Thunderous Productions at the Greenbelt Arts Center— 123 Centerway in historic Greenbelt MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 441-8770 or purchase them online.