All Aboard For A Murder Most Fun

Arts & Culture

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING THURSDAY JAN 16, 2020

The big question hanging over any production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express comes down to one simple premise: Why watch a whodunit when you already know, well, who done it? Based on the production currently onstage, Asolo Repertory Theatre’s response seems to be equally direct: ‘Cause it’s fun as hell.

Directed by Asolo veteran Peter Amster from a script by the Tony Award-winning Ken Ludwig, Asolo Rep’s production sidesteps the issue by transforming a suspenseful thriller into a madcap comedy. And like a trip on the great old train itself—it’s the journey, not the destination. The mystery remains for the unfamiliar, but the production refuses to rely on plot machinations to entertain an audience likely to already know the answer, rather flexing all those other dramatic muscles that make the stage so exciting—the sets, the larger-than-life characters and the sheer performance of it all. And when the curtain goes down, the plot feels more like a delivery mechanism for all of those things than the main course itself.

Despite not being a member of the cast, Paul Tate dePoo III may very well be the star of the show. For though you never see him on the stage, his wondrously designed sets (realized as wondrously by the Asolo crew) become a character all their own, with intricate traincars as beautiful and full of secrets as any of its passengers. Revealing the storied locomotive car-by-car, fragment-by-fragment, all brought to life in sumptuous detail, it’s a feat of engineering as much as a triumph of the stage. And just when you think you’ve discovered how dePoo did it, he unveils another compartment and you’re wondering how big this train really is—and where you can snag a ticket. 

Rising to the occasion is a charming cast embracing their cartoonish archetypes with infectious abandon. David Breitbarth embodies the consummate Monsieur Bouc, owner of the Orient Express and professional host, with every outsized expression of pride, conviviality or, ultimately, desperation. Tina Stafford delights as the obnoxiously irrepressible singin’-and-dancin’ Minnesotan with a penchant for show tunes and ex-husbands. Matt DeCaro’s Ratchett oozes menace and obscenity, and Alex Pelletier (a third-year student at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory) garners a laugh from the audience every time her aggressively German Greta Ohlsson gets a line. It’s an operation in extreme reactions and thick accents all around, and where the set is immaculate in its dedication to recreating the bygone majesty of the great train, the cast revels in this heightened theatricality, winking and nodding to the audience as their over-the-top personas chew through the feast dePoo and Amster laid out for them. 

And not enough can be said about James DeVita, who makes his Asolo debut as the famed Hercule Poirot, mustachioed and oh-so-French. (Belgian?) From the set of his shoulders to the point of his toes, DeVita inhabits the lead with such totality that it’s easy to forget there’s an actor in there. And it’s largely on his performance, in sync with the lighting and sound crews, that the show realizes its dynamic tonal shifts from comedy to drama and back again.

Amster’s airtight direction somehow keeps all of this under tight control—even those chaotic moments when the whole thing seems one penny away from going off the rails. And the director’s cinematic touches continually invoke a nostalgic whodunit atmosphere that invites the audience to leave its cynicism at home and climb aboard because it’s all in good fun.

There are moments of drag and perhaps opportunities for a nip and a tuck here and there, and I remain undecided on the opening mechanic—clunky execution or purposeful camp?—but none of these significantly detract from what is ultimately a bloody good time.

James DeVita and David Breitbarth in Murder on the Orient Express. Photo by Cliff Roles.

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