Friday, February 11, 2011

And Then There Were None entertains

by Andrew Juhl

Iowa City - “The show must go on.”

Ouch. What a cliché way to begin a community theatre review. I ought to apologize for my hack-hackity-hackness right now. Trouble is, I think in this case “the show must go on” is about as apropos as I’ve ever witnessed. The rehearsal schedule for ICCT’s And Then There Were None suffered from sprained limbs, strep throat, pneumonia, a hefty blizzard, a collapsed roof, and more. Yet, while many community-based troupes would have thrown up their hands and walked away from the production, this group of dedicated actors stuck it out, pitched in, and put it on.

And after witnessing a somewhat shaky preview of the show, I am glad they did.

Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is a well-crafted piece of writing, even amongst Christie’s own oeuvre. Ten characters, strangers to another save for a married couple, are invited to an island resort. After a round of somewhat callow introductions, the group prepares for supper — excuse me, dinner — only to be surprised by a recorded voice accusing each partygoer of a specific heinous crime. It becomes readily apparent that not only have they been marooned on the isolated island, but that a murderer stalks amongst them, planning to kill them all according to the outline of the poem “Ten Little Solider Boys.”

The plot, while seemingly far-fetched, holds steadfast in the wake of direct scrutiny, a testament to the meticulous plotting skills of its authoress. The characters’ motives for sojourning at a queer, unknown location are passably explained, as are the tales behind their aforementioned accusations. Additionally, the setting of an island cutoff from communication is one that has aged exceedingly well since its 1930s creation.

ICCT’s And Then There Were None cast is, perhaps, the most age-appropriate cast I have ever seen for the play. Sometimes done in high schools or smaller communities, the actors have to stretch their years through costume, makeup, and voice; the ensemble in the current production is believable on their own merits. There are a few standouts, though. Richard Paulus performs fantastically as ‘General MacKenzie,’ bringing credible gravitas to the role of a shameful old vet that few younger actors could muster. Caroline Oster’s portrayal of ‘Emily Brent’ was similarly on-mark, proffering a perfect example of the ruthlessly religious, self-righteous, and judgmental older woman. Matthew Falduto (‘Captain Lombard’) and Tracy Schoenle (‘Vera Claythorne’) carry two of the show’s larger roles with aplomb, and a special nod goes to James Anderson (‘Anthony Marston’) for conveying exceptional sliminess in what is a smaller but important role.

Director Patti Mott has obvious experience with the story. Early scenes contain several dozen entrances and exits, though none noticeably infringe any others, and even when the entire 10-person ensemble is on stage, it doesn’t feel crowded or over-busy. I also applaud the decision to not have the cast attempt English accents. I’ve seen this done with an English-set play before, and it can be painful. It takes nothing away from the performance or the story to hear these lines delivered in the hearty cadences of lifelong Midwesterners.

Night-before-opening, there were still a few handfuls of dropped or trampled lines of dialogue, but no one instance that would derail an actual show. Besides, this is why dress rehearsals exist, no? My measure of the cast is that they are an exceptionally committed group of actors, and whatever shortcomings appeared last night will be rectified come this evening.

My primary criticism coming away from the preview was that several characters lacked any true sense of urgency throughout their performances. People were dying around them, and they could—would—be next, yet several seemed not only okay with that fact, but almost bored by it. I have to say, if the guy on the stage doesn’t care that he’s about to be drowned, I’m not going to be all that concerned about it, either. Again, though, I have hopes that a jolt of opening night adrenaline will inject some much-needed energy into these performances.

Either way, Christie’s original story should keep you entertained, especially if you’ve never seen it before. I was lucky enough to have a 9-year-old along with me for the review, and she — a little girl who can barely sit through an episode of over-stimulating Disney Channel tripe before getting bored - sat motionless and riveted throughout the entire final act. Well done, Agatha and ICCT. Well done, indeed.

ICCT’s And Then There Were None is running this weekend only (Feb. 11-13); the Friday and Saturday shows are 7:30pm, and there is Sunday matinee at 2:00pm.

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