Whodunit? Who Cares

Rep derails ‘Orient Express’ with ham acting, exaggerated accents and technical gimmicky.

By - Jun 7th, 2022 02:00 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Murder on the Orient Express in the Quadracci Powerhouse June 1 – July 1, 2022. Pictured: The cast of Murder on the Orient Express. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Murder on the Orient Express in the Quadracci Powerhouse June 1 – July 1, 2022. Pictured: The cast of Murder on the Orient Express. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Rep season subscribers surely didn’t expect such a precipitous drop in accomplishment at the Quadracci Playhouse, moving from the best show of the season in April-May’s Titanic the Musical, about the 20th century’s largest ocean disaster, to the worst show of the season surrounding Dame Agatha Christie’s greatest Hercules Poirot outing of the 1930s known now as Murder on the Orient Express, running through July 1.

A sea change in treatment is inevitable for the grand Dame of mystery fiction representing the heights of a century old whodunit tradition stuffed with exotic locals, eccentric creatures from every status of British social life, mystifying clues and puzzles and the need for the sensible stuff and no-nonsense sleuthing of sophisticated Poirot or rural rustic Jane Marple. Today’s Christie outings generally live in a specialized world somewhere between alluring characters, titillating stereotypes and cartoon behavior.

Films and eminent TV productions provided the allure in elegant locales and endless cameos by the talented famous – John Gielgud, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer and on and on through the corridors of a snow-bound first-class train stuffed with suspects in the stabbing death of a notorious bad man.

The cartoon comes in part from the overly extended facial hairs on Poirot, be the actor underneath Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov or Kenneth Branagh, and the playing of dialogue for laughs and of the horror situations for bursts of levity. It’s a tricky dance to bring off, leading theater companies to engage in fast-paced parody as The 39 Steps has done or even with touches of farce amid the suspense.

Which brings us to the Milwaukee Rep and an expert on classic stage farce, playwright Ken Ludwig of Lend Me a Tenor, and his 2017 Murder on the Orient concoction. His script cuts the pool of suspects by a third, adds flashbacks, bodies chasing purposelessly under strobe lights and constant entrances and exits, plus soliloquys for Poirot faced with a genuine moral conundrum as he solves the crime.

Indeed, the solution in this crime was so rare in 1934, when the mystery was published, and so famous now that the attention turns to how well the characters take their turns in the spotlight, and this is the major disappointment.

Hidden under the exaggerated accents are some good actors. I noted Rep familiar Jonathan Wainwright alternating his Mafia gangster snarl with Scottish military bluffness in two roles, and Steven Rattazzi as a simplified Poirot (with normal prissy mustache and fastidiousness) though he over-relies on a braying Belgian accent to neutralize the braying around him.

There are a few fetching moments from Emjoy Gavino as a lovesick governess and Diana Coates (in a countess-doctor -suspect-mantrap part never fully developed). Most of the rest of the cast has discarded their Stanislavski manuals and even their British underplaying books to ham it up, which only should be done by expert farceurs. Here we don’t have those experts in any abundance, nor the sort of funny quips that would suggest such broad reactions are worth it.

Director Annika Boras seems to have encouraged this stylistic excess as opposed to seeking out the human moments within the stereotypes. She relies way too much on mechanics to keep us occupied, such as the multiple revolving turntables to show the exterior and interiors of the Orient Express (designer Luciana Stuccoing), the corridor parades of uniforms, Edwardian nighties and frocks (designer Mieko van der Ploeg) and the chances for the cast to replay highlights of their most outrageous acting in mock freeze frames.

The technical gimmicks become more ludicrous than elaborate, like a Ziegfeld fashion parade gone awry. Theater usually excels at not making us long for the ease of cinema. But this show creates the exact opposite feeling.

Orient Express Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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