Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Agatha Christie's un-killable murder thriller (renowned as the longest-running stage play by any author), The Mousetrap comes to us from 1952, in this case newly cast and directed by Gary F. Bell for Stray Dog Theatre. And, like the board game mystery "Clue," everyone in this production is stamped with indelibly colored costumes by Colleen Michelson. And somehow, as a result, the show's usual weird, haunting feel takes on a new look. A kind of fatefulness hangs over the whole affair, as if a gaggle of authentic English people (stylized though they are) had been turned into lowly tokens for a killer. It's all more than a bit merciless in that sense: the suspects don't even realize they've been devolved into monsters.
Before adding that on, though, it's already as if Agatha Christie knew you'd be watching for clues and hidden guilt, which she dutifully supplies by the carload. And this production dials up the mystery genre's commentary on the human race a few notches further: there's a rising madness to match each of the color-coded suspects, but it's also as if they could never see how archetypal they'd all become–which is part of the resonant horror of it all.
And, like fools, we eagerly dive right into the impending bloodbath, feet first, splashing around with macabre delight. It's fun, set safely within a proscenium arch. But all the while, we're watching ourselves being reduced to a tribal state as well.
It was as straight-faced as a car crash investigation when the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged The Mousetrap in 2013, but psychologically coherent and "moment to moment" both there and here. Inexorably, one thing flows into the next here, with director Bell's usual finesse and inventiveness. And I'd forgotten a lot of the story's chilling heartbreak and twists and turns in the years between then and now. But each superficially flamboyant character also has their own pronounced little psychological territory, their own little "stand your ground" patch of righteousness in this version, which makes it seem very 2024 indeed.
The scenery draws us in as smoothly as Christie's yarn, with set design and construction by Richard Brown and Dominic Emery. Monkswell Manor is a grand old country house (and former monastery), with light and dark mottled purple walls owing to a rag and sponge painting effect that results in a deep and fog-like texture. That's balanced by a large amber-colored Tudor-style window glowering over the stage like a truncheon. It looks great under Tyler Duenow's subtle lighting.
At lights-up, a young couple has just inherited the place and turned it into a country inn–although they have not had any actual prior experience at inn-keeping whatsoever–which could be a little more comedically played up, here or there. And the production company could have called in a dialect coach for a handful of English accent rough spots, with "git" replacing "get" now and then, and the like.
Anyway, they're all snowed in, which turns a "country manor house" mystery into a modified "locked room" mystery. And by the time Detective Sergeant Trotter (Tyrone Power-like Drew Mizell) shows up, one person has already been slain. Claire Coffey, as Mollie Ralston, the distaff half of the young inn-keeping couple, is lovably reduced to an anguished mess over the course of two hours and forty minutes (including one ten-minute intermission). And the excellent Sean Seifert plays Mollie's young husband Giles, helping to prop up the whole second half of the show with unexpected strength.
However, I suspect that, years from now, we will still be talking about this production as a nefarious, high-style tug-of-war between two of its actors, Jayson Heil and Matt Anderson. Each of them plays a potential murderer, though they rarely interact with one another, except in the side-by-side competition that I now imagine for them both. Each brings a ferocious gusto to the stage: Mr. Heil plays the exceedingly gay (but immaculately nuanced) Christopher Wren, clad in various shades of pink; and the seldom-seen Mr. Anderson, clad in a textured deep purple suit and matching fez, is an equally unapologetic "character," Mr. Paravicini. I've never seen anyone turn the entire art form inside-out, live on stage, the way Mr. Anderson does here, psychologically. Well, I mean, I sort of have–but it's extremely rare. In this case, you will begin to question who's the observer and who's the observed, as was my own shocking fate. And who needs AI, when you can get so completely lost in all this?
Shannon Campbell gets a winking laugh early-on as the postwar version of a stage lesbian, Miss Casewell, but (like almost everyone here) fills in plenty of personal history later on, piercing the darkness with a half-dozen glowing kinds of character revelation. David Wassilak and Julie Healey play older travelers, reminding us that suspense may arise, even from something as simple as a faithfulness to tradition, or good old English reserve.
The play is full of amusing characters and comical interactions, and the tension rises a lot when the detective demands a reenactment of the most recent murder. More importantly, though, The Mousetrap occasionally relies on a fictional story from twenty or more years ago of the barely specified fate of three very unlucky children. The tale from long ago hangs in the air like an eternal scolding. And it's never been resolved till now, when the matter is dealt with in the worst possible way, during the course of the play.
The various suspects on stage conjure nerve-jangling discomfort at being forced to remember the curse of the story. And each time, their pain echoes within us. I can't think of any other Christie mystery that can say that. I can't, at the moment, think of any other play that balances all the requirements of the stage so perfectly, either.
The Mousetrap runs through February 17, 2024, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please call 314-865-1995 or visit www.straydogtheatre.org.