Why would a theater's new artistic director decide to make his acting debut with an Agatha Christie murder mystery instead of say, something more weighty, more serious?
The train. Chalk it up to the singular vision Alley Artistic Director Rob Melrose had for the train and for the kind of stage it should be on (a thrust stage) in Murder on the Orient Express - a vision that extends to some probable design shake-ups across the board at the theater's upcoming productions - and the fact that he ran out of time to hand over the reins to another director,
Besides, he says, it's been fun and educational working with members of the Alley's resident company as well as other local actors. All to the good for his next outing: the little seen Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale.
Murder on the Orient Express is an adaptation by Ken Ludwig (The Three Musketeers) who was contacted by the Christie estate and asked if he would consider writing a play version of Murder on the Orient Express "and they gave their blessing to have Poirot be a character," Melrose says. Agatha Christie was a machine writing machine and Hercule Poirot was the main character in 33 of her novels and more than 50 of her short stories. But she only wrote one one play (Black Coffee) with him in it. Legend has it that she felt Poirot overwhelmed everything and everyone else on stage and she didn't want to repeat that.
The action takes place on a train heading from Istanbul to Western Europe. The year is 1934. Along the journey the train is forced to halt when a snowdrift blocks the tracks. And while everyone sits waiting, a passenger - an American tycoon - is murdered. Fortunately, the master Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is aboard.
Unlike the novel which is told from an omniscient perspective, in the play Poirot is the narrator, coming out to the audience to tell it about a case that stumped him and also challenged his personal morality, Melrose says.
"Because it's a memory, it allows us to be more theatrical; we don't have to realistically represent the whole thing and we decided we can kind of give ourselves the structure of the train."
In some scenes, the entire train will be on stage, Melrose says. In others, more close up, the audience will see only part of the train.
"The hard work has been on the dialects. There are eight different dialects in the play," Melrose says, adding that he's brought in Ron Carlos, head of voice and dialects at the Yale School of Drama. Besides the need for this for the play's sake, Melrose sees this as a good opportunity for professional development for the actors involved. "Every run-through he takes notes and he gives each individual actor their notes."
Asked why he thinks this works so well as a play, Melrose says, "Ken has done a fabulous job making the play really drive. This play is under two hours. And there are 13 different characters. He does a great job of writing these really short scenes where you get the essential information and he really has a great sense of action," Melrose says.
In translating a complex novel to the stage, Ludwig has not left behind his sense of humor, Melrose says. For instance, he's given Elizabeth Bunch as Helen Hubbard a Minnesota accent "which has led to a lot of great comedy."
The actor playing the lead role of Hercule Poirot, David Sinaiko, was a last-minute replacement after James Black, who has played the detective in several Alley productions, had to withdraw for health reasons. Sinaiko worked with Melrose at Cutting Ball Theatre.
"In a lot of theaters the new artistic director brings in his own actors," Melrose says. In the case of the Alley with its resident company in play, he's decided instead - at least for now - to concentrate on set design.
As a result, he recently announced the hiring of Michael Locher as director of design. In the newly-created position, Locher will report to Melrose, with whom he worked for two decades at Melrose's former theater, Cutting Ball Theatre in San Francisco. Locher will work as scenic designer for five shows this season including Murder on the Orient Express.
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Melrose says he thought the previous Alley set designs were beautifully done, but somewhat similar. As a student of theater all over the world, Melrose says he'd like to explore more different and distinct approaches.
The first day the actors were able to see the set for the play, Melrose says, there was general amazement. "We've never done a set like this before," he says one told him.
So now there's another reason to come to see this season's Summer Chills offering. An Agatha Christie murder mystery with all sorts of plot twists, turns and gasp-producing moments. A different kind of set design. And a train.
Performances are scheduled for July 19 through August 25 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $31-$98.