Chicago Reviews

Court's "The Mousetrap" playfully reinvents a classic

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

There is a reason that The Mousetrap is the longest running show in theatre history (its London production has played over 28,000 performances in 68 years), and that is because Agatha Christie’s mystery is fun. In its current revival at Court Theatre, that does seem to be the operative word in Sean Graney’s directorial mandate. Graney’s entire focus here seems to be that the more fun they can with the play, the better. That notion begins with a highly imaginative design team and continues to his own at times silly but always enjoyable direction and leads to wonderfully stylized performances by an excellent cast that make this production come alive.

Arnel Sancianco’s impressively massive set featuring an enormous hearth, curved mousehole-like doorways, an outrageously oversized bookcase, and a huge wall of windows behind which we can see a very realistic perpetual snowfall, provides a glorious playground for the actors—dwarfed by its imposing size—to play in. Alison Siple’s whimsical costume choices, patterned after the game Clue and assigning each character a specific key color, continue the argument that the entire point of all of this is to have a good time in Christie’s frequently hilarious mystery.

The actors take up the mantle eagerly, creating wonderful characters whose level of reality ranges from Alice in Wonderland-ish surrealism to outright farce and sticking them together on a snowbound stay at a brand new country boarding house not too far outside of London while a mysterious murderer is on the loose (which we know thanks to the convenient news bulletin that begins the play—kudos here to Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design). 

Husband and wife team Giles and Mollie Ralston (Allen Gilmore and Kate Fry) have bought this old mansion and converted it, though they actually know very little about hotel management. (OK, they know nothing about hotel management.) Their opening night guests include an acerbic magistrate (Carolyn Ann Hoardemann) who does little more than complain about every facet of the place from the cold to the lack of servants to the other guests. There are four others: an oddly nervous young woman named Miss Casewell (Tina Muñoz Pandya), a manic and unfiltered Christopher Wren, a wannabe architect named after the famous one (Alex Goodrich), the retired military man Major Metcalf (Lyonel Reneau), and an uninvited guest who has arrived saying his car has overturned in a snowdrift, the outrageous Mr. Paravicini (David Cerda at his absurd best). 

After a phone call from the local police lets them know that there is fear that the killer might be in the area, they are joined by Detective Sergeant Trotter (Erik Hellman), who reaches them in the only way possible: on skis. He explains that the police believe that the murder is only the first of three that the authorities expect, basing their conclusion on a clue left at the scene calling the victim the first of “three blind mice” (and setting off a recurrent theme of humming, singing, or plunking the notes of that earworm nursery rhyme on the piano, a constant aural reminder of the number of murders yet to come). When one of the guests is, in fact, murdered, it becomes imperative that the detective identify both who will be next and which among them is the killer.

That’s as far as I can go about the plot of the play, whose solution amazingly (after almost seven decades) is still a surprise. Many productions of the play are accompanied by admonitions not to give away any of the show’s secrets, and this seems to have worked, though you can learn its twist ending on WIkipedia, a fact that “dismayed” Christie’s grandson when he discovered it. Stay away from that site if you don’t want the play spoiled for you.

Though the play is certainly pretty formulaic (which I suppose can be forgiven due to its age and the fact that its author more or less invented the formula), it is still a joy to watch when done well, and Court’s production is definitely done well. Graney’s direction is full of little moments of playfulness, and his actors seem to be having a grand time with these less than totally serious characters. No one, though, has more fun than Cerda and Goodrich, both of whom play intrusive characters whose physicality and oddness make them stand out. Cerda, the Artistic Director of Hell in a Handbag Productions who is no stranger to playing larger than life characters, plays up Paravicini’s bizarreness with a heavy accent and an attitude far more caustic than one might expect from a man who has just found refuge from a storm. (His outlandish costume certainly helps him as well.)

Goodrich’s Wren, outfitted in very loud orange clothing and hair, inappropriately inserts himself into the lives of other characters, especially Fry’s Mollie, making him everyone’s favorite candidate to be unmasked as an unstable killer. Goodrich’s intentionally over the top performance keeps his character in focus even if he is just lurking at the top of the stairs.

Fry and Gilmore ground the play for the most part as the Ralstons, but neither of their characters does very well in the chaos of this moment. Fry focuses on nervousness for Mollie while Gilmore’s Giles clothes himself in anger as the insanity of the situation threatens to unravel their still fairly new relationship. Control of the second act, therefore, is left where it traditionally lies: in the hands of the detective. Hellman’s young and inexperienced Sergeant Trotter stumbles his way through his investigation, managing to maintain his authority merely because he is a policeman and there has been a murder. Like everyone else here, Hellman seems to be having a great deal of fun in the role.

Though there are some inconsistencies I can’t really discuss without giving the twists away, and some odd bits of blocking that take whimsicality a bit too far, The Mousetrap really makes for a great way to spend an evening. Like its set, it is larger than life and a bit excessive, but always in a humorous way and/or to serve its mystery. With an outstanding cast that perfectly fits the characters and the tone of the play, this is a mousetrap you won’t wish to escape.

The Mousetrap is now playing at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago, IL, until Feb 16. The show runs approximately two hours ten minutes; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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