As guilty pleasures go, the murder mystery remains an enigmatic monument to our own bloodthirstiness, barely sublimated if at all. Encrypted death as entertainment isn't the most defensible of pursuits—yet it's among the most popular ones.
Which is why TheatreFest's comeback season after a two-summer hiatus features three Agatha Christie mysteries in rotating repertory through June 27. The first, A Murder is Announced, opened last weekend.
Director Rachel Klem and actor JoAnne Dickinson's interpretation of the dowager detective Miss Marple is likely to give the genre's fans something to talk about. Bully for them. For I've not been particularly fond of—or convinced by—the versions that have come to dominate film and television in recent decades. The wan Julia McKenzie and Joan Hickson both appeared to have about enough energy to slice cheese, not conduct a murder investigation. And no hooded fiend was ever required to carry off the bright-eyed Geraldine McEwen—the first strong breeze should have done the trick.
No. Give me the unsinkable Margaret Rutherford instead, from the original MGM films including Murder She Said and Murder Most Foul. Yes, she's a bit of a departure from the character in Christie's novels. She's also a lot more interesting.
In her absence, we'll do with Dickinson's Marple here. With arch facial expressions, perpetually pursed lips—and a voice and cadence just a bit too similar to Alfred Hitchcock's to be accidental—our Miss Marple is decidedly less nice than most predecessors in the role. The gods be praised: The way the spirits of these recent, chirpy Marples just lift after a good poisoning has bordered on the unseemly.
By comparison, Dickinson's central character has a mind like a steel trap and a mouth to match. Though kind enough, she doesn't suffer fools and isn't terribly preoccupied with social etiquette. There's something chill and slightly ruthless about her—just a touch of the babushka women of old Moscow. And since her eyes miss nothing, you wouldn't want to play her in a game of chess or poker, either.
In an English boarding house, villagers—some of whom have English accents—gather after a personal ad in the local paper publicizes that a murder will take place that night. At the appointed hour, the lights go out, three shots are fired and the game's afoot. Marilee Spell is unflappable as the woman of the house, but Lynda Clark steals nearly every scene she's in with her memorable comic turn as the high-strung spinster Miss Bunner. Chaperoned by a game Joel T. Horton as Patrick, Mary Guthrie and Collette Rutherford trade arched eyebrows as potential suspects Julia Simmons and Phillipa Haymes. During her performance as Mitzi, the stolid Eastern European cook, Sandi Sullivan finds a rewarding maneuver out of vintage Carol Burnett, while David Klionsky scores points as the ingratiating but direct Inspector Craddock.
While a number of smaller supporting roles aren't terribly well developed, those at the center should keep audiences amused while decrypting the mechanics in Dame Agatha's plot in an enjoyable—I almost said "harmless"—diversion for a summer's night.