Aquila Theatre is an NYC based theater company that has a passion to reenvision what a classic play is and expand the theatre canon. Their mission statement is to “bring the greatest works to the greatest number”. So with that mandate it’s no wonder that they tour two shows in rep every year to over fifty cities across the United States. This year they are touring Murder on the Nile by Agatha Christie directed by Peter Meineck. I caught them at the Stockton PAC in Galloway NJ.
Aquila always seeks to do things differently from the way they’ve always been done and they have become famous for creating their own style.
So what’s the first order of business in doing an Agatha Christie play in a new style? Change the setting. We are not transported back to 1930’s Egypt aboard the paddle boat Steamer Lotus. We are not watching the play of two newlyweds who expect a romantic vacation up the Nile on a wonderful pleasure cruise that takes a sinister side route when murder strikes. We are in a BBC recording studio in 1940’s London and a cast of characters is about to perform Agatha Christie’s classic “whodunnit”.
The second order of business? Trim the cast. This radio production in 1941 London is in the midst of “the Blitz” and bombs have started falling on the city. Three actors: Lincoln Hudson, Palmyra Mattner, and Toby Miller, playing BBC radio actors, have discovered that they are the only ones to have made it to the studio and they alone must portray the entire dramatis personae of this play. They must play all the characters and the show must go on.
The passenger manifest includes two newlyweds who have recently eloped; Kay Ridgeway-Mostyn, England’s richest woman, and Simon Mostyn. They are surprised and appalled when Kay’s former best friend and Simon’s ex fiance, Jacqueline de Severac, is also aboard. Kay also doesn’t know that her uncle Canon Ambrose Pennefather is on the boat as well. The Steamer is also home to a snobbish Miss Ffoliot Ffoulkes and her niece Christina Grant. There is also a wise cracking William Smith and European physician Dr. Bessner along with stewards, maids, and many others. And as each of the actors switch in and out of these characters, putting on a different hat to show which character they’re playing, it becomes quite a juggling act.
These three actors deliver expert performances. You go on the journey with them and you feel for them. It’s no longer just a who dunnit but a “can they do it.” You celebrate their success with them.
This is a massive undertaking but they have the support of a brilliant director and design team.
Director Peter Meineck has worked hard with the actors to make sure all these moving parts work as a well-oiled machine. Through making sure that each character has a specific way of talking and moving and making sure that it’s consistent among all of their portrayals of them we never forget who is playing who. My favorite moments are when the actors are running all over the stage to change hats as they are portraying a crowd scene. There are also many times when one actor is playing three parts at once. You can really tell that he and the actors worked hard on this play to make it ready for tour.
And maybe Meineck knows so much about changing hats because he wears two hats on this production himself. He is also the lighting designer and he worked with the other designers of the play to make what you would think is a dusty classic period piece into a modern hi tech work of art.
Costume Designer James McDaniel was able to give each of the characters their own specific feel but also neutral enough that when they became different characters it seemed to fade into the background. It is also painstakingly period accurate. My favorite costume was the tea lady’s costume that Lincoln Hudson wears. You almost forget that he’s wearing it as he dons a parson’s hat or a fez and becomes someone else.
Peter Meineck as the lighting designer ( he’s also the founder of the Aquila Theatre) uses the lighting to keep us in that period. We see the lights dimming and going in and out and we feel that there may just be bombs going off overhead. Playing in that dimmer light sets the mood for a murder mystery. Then you remember that the reason the lights are dim is because they are under attack.
Sound designer Chase Duhe along with projection designer Dave Tennent also help us feel the period and feel the danger of what these performers are doing. But they also lend a very surreal effect that makes us aware that we are watching a play. Sometimes modern music will play over the speakers or the pictures on the screen that would give us context for the play spin and go crazy. I find that it was really effective in making me ask “what did I just see?” And make me pay more attention to it.
The plot of Agatha Christie’s work is very dialogue driven, and the design team and the cast do a masterful job making a very visibly stunning work of art too. And even though it is played in an unconventional manner you still go on a journey with the characters to find the murderer with them. You still want to find out whodunnit.
So who is the murderer? You’ll have to catch them on tour to find out.
Running Time: Two hours and 30-minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.