PIONEER THEATRE COMPANY: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has remained resilient. It is surprising for a 1934 novel that more often than not has been denigrated by contemporary scholars of literature as lowbrow along with what they perceived as insensitive portrayals of cultural and ethnic stereotypes they contend have not aged well.
When Christie wrote the novel, introducing readers to Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who sported a fine mustache and was smallish in stature, she set a story that clicked with readers immediately. The novel was published, with the news of the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby still fresh in the public’s mind. The memory of the luxurious ambience of train travel (common at the time) is so far away now, especially if one considers how even the comforts of plane travel in the 1960s are portrayed nostalgically in the popular Mad Men series.
Both the story and its detective protagonist have been treated extensively to cinematic adaptations along with wacky pastiches and spot-on parodies in television and pop culture. In 1975, The New York Times published an obituary about Poirot, an unprecedented tribute for a fictional character.
Fortunately, Ken Ludwig’s 2017 theatrical adaptation of the Christie classic, which was blessed by the author’s estate, has demonstrated why the novel does not deserve to be subjected to such criticisms. The case is reinforced with splendid results in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Utah premiere of the Ludwig adaptation. Directed by Melissa Rain Anderson, this gorgeous production amplifies the reasons why the detective fiction genre belongs in the canon of serious literature.
In her autobiography, Christie was self-effacing about the distinctions of her work, indicating that her stories were intended as entertaining diversions not all that different from solving crosswords or word games. But, as the PTC production of the Ludwig adaptation proves, the language games involved are as rich in multilayered interactions within the character economy of the narrative as effectively as the visual expression of the sumptuous setting on stage.
To recap the story, the plot springs from the kidnapping and murder of a child. One of the passengers on board the Orient Express is revealed as the murderer, who ends up being killed and his body is discovered when the train has been caught in a drift of heavy snow. Poirot coincidentally is in the same first-class railcar as the passengers, all of whom are seen as potential suspects. Meanwhile, some passengers contend that the crime could have been carried out by a stranger who entered the railcar.
Speaking to Monsieur Bouc (Edward Juvier), who is in charge of the railway accommodations, Poirot (John Tufts) offers a bit of foreshadowing just as the train is ready to depart: “Forgive me. It is my business. And I sense that something is wrong – that there is a tension among these passengers of yours. One of them does not fit in. It makes me frightened.”
The superbly acted cast of characters (and potential suspects) shines in the narrative task of rendering their respective dialects and ethnic stereotypes, which serve a crucial performative purpose in distracting Poirot as well as the audience (especially those who may have never read the original story or never have seen either of its major cinematic adaptations). They include Helen Hubbard (portrayed by Anne Tolpegin), Hector MacQueen (Matthew McGloin) Mary Debenham (Andrea Morales), Princess Dragomiroff (Bonnie Black) and her companion Greta Ohlsson (Amy Bodnar) and Countess Andrenyi (Gisela Chípe). Robert Scott Smith expertly takes on two characters (the murder victim Samuel Ratchett and Colonel Arbuthnot). Likewise, Alec Ruiz deftly handles two roles (Michel the train conductor and head waiter).
As Poirot proceeds with his investigation, he realizes that every individual has an alibi or is quick to suggest another explanation for how the murder happened. “I have no idea! That is the problem! Every time I find a piece of the puzzle, there is a suspect who has an alibi,” the Belgian detective says. “Colonel Arbuthnot? He could have a grudge against Cassetti [the actual name of Ratchett and the murderer of the young kidnap victim] from a business dealing – but then MacQueen gives him an alibi from twelve to two, they are chatting on the observation deck! Aha, I say. What about Miss Ohlssohn? – she is strange, there is something not right about her – but she swears that she and Miss Debenham are up all night chattering in the room they are sharing. And so it goes with Mrs. Hubbard and the princess and now Miss Debenham has been shot and I am out of suspects!”
The actors hit all their marks on the smart bits of comedy that Ludwig has inserted to emphasize the underlying performative purposes the characters have crafted in their respective ethnic stereotypes. The set design likewise anchors our impressions of the surroundings being traversed by one of the world’s most exotic, classy railways while focusing nearly the entire narrative setting in a first-class coach.
Poirot’s earlier foreboding comment to Bouc is borne out by the characters and their dispositions (who really are more pedestrian than suggestive of genuine appreciation of luxury status). For instance, the only wine drinkers in the first-class coach are Bouc and Poirot. Hubbard’s drinking is not that of a connoisseur as much as it is for medicating purposes. Likewise, we discover how well Bouc’s effusive testimonial about the diverse collection of passengers, spoken early in the play, becomes central in the context of the crime that is about to take place.
The production team manifests all of the right notes in Ludwig’s adaptation. The actors who portray the characters with all of their idiosyncratic tendencies and clichéd volitional aims astutely clear the path for Poirot to step forward as a heroic vanguard, borne of Belgian mores with a keen sense of the ethics of justice weighed against the temptations of retribution and vengeance. When the performance ends with the same satisfying effect of dénouement that Christie penned in the novel, the audience gets the full pleasure of this truly outstanding production.
Kudos as well go to Jason Simms (scenic designer), Phillip R. Lowe (costume designer), Jaymi Lee Smith (lighting designer), Elton Bradman (sound designer), Tami Lee Thompson (hair and makeup supervisor), Adrianne Moore (dialect coach), and James O. Hansen (production stage manager).
The production continues through Oct. 7, with performances in the Simmons Memorial Pioneer Theatre on The University of Utah campus, Mondays through Thursdays, 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, see the Pioneer Theatre Company website.
RIRIE-WOODBURY DANCE COMPANY: GROUNDWORKS
More often than not, we sometimes forget the value and impact of historical legacy. Our lives and minds become so cluttered with recent rushes of information and events that we miss the opportunity to stand still for a brief moment to remind ourselves how fortunate we should be for legacies that define why we cherish and prize something for its excellence and its value in the community. In a magnificent memorable way, Groundworks was a supreme start to Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s 60th anniversary season.
As The Utah Review’s recent long-form feature about Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury, who founded the company in 1964, indicated, this is a company that has always known how to thrill an audience in Utah, the U.S. and scores of countries around the world.
Deciding how a 90-minute season opener to celebrate and pay tribute to the foundations upon which the company was built could be a complicated objective. However, working from an impressively prolific output and repertoire, current artistic director Daniel Charon and creative team selected the best sample to achieve a thrilling blockbuster performance.
Groundworks whetted the appetite for the remainder of the 60th anniversary season, which will feature high school dance companies performing choreography generated by Ririe-Woodbury residences (Synthesis, Dec, 13-15); dance pieces by current and alumni company artists (Traverse, Feb. 1-3) and world premieres by Charon and former Ririe-Woodbury artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen (Ascent, April 18-20).
The first half of the program was dedicated to two works by Alwin Nikolais, a pioneering dance choreographer who before the age of digital technology in staging and lighting design arrived, created mesmerizing dance theater works that are immune from ever becoming dated. Nikolais was the sort of creative visionary who instinctively understood the timelessness and timeliness of the retro vibe.
As The Utah Review noted elsewhere, the legendary choreographers Nikolais and Murray Louis’ connections to Ririe-Woodbury started with Woodbury in 1956 at a workshop in Colorado. The three of them met for the first time and became lifelong friends. Ririe and Woodbury institutionalized the legacy of Nikolais into the heart and soul of their company’s repertoire and Ririe-Woodbury took a unique role in preserving Nikolais’ work. After Nikolais’ death in 1993, the Nikolais/Louis Foundation split into two entities but it has remained that Ririe-Woodbury is the only American dance company to absorb the works into its permanent repertoire.
Groundworks opened with Tensile Involvement (1955), featuring guest artists from Brigham Young University’s dance program. It was a perfectly generous amuse-bouche to stimulate the appetite. The dancers are attached to elastic strings on their hands and feet so the movements create the impression of watching the performers move in planes of infinite space. It is a fine example of Nikolais’ command of lighting design features. And, for audiences, it shows how a work from the mid-1950s holds up very well for the 2023 stage.
Commissioned by the Venezuelan National Cultural Council for the Simon Bolivar Bicentennial, Liturgies, from 1983, is an undeniable ritual composition of dance theater, with section titles such as Reliquary, Effigy, Sorcerer, Carillon, among others. The work is built on universally recognized metaphorical themes. Reliquary, for example, is set for a trio, with a masked dancer who appears to be a puppet tied to a bar resembling a yoke that is held by two dancers. Elucidating the full theatrical impact, just who is actually controlling the strings in this tableau?
Sorcerer is fascinating, also featuring a masked dancer, who spins mid-air while surrounded by a cloth resembling the wave motions of the ocean. A T-bar with one dancer hanging on it while another spins it becomes the Effigy tableau. Human beauty sometimes is too formidable to be allowed to move freely. Carillon is eerily reverential, with the dancers costumed in layers of silver cones. The finale to Liturgies was particularly good in maximizing the famed choreographer’s skills of shadow play.
Ririe-Woodbury dancers have always produced spectacular performances with Nikolais works and this Groundworks performance was no different.
The second half was … WOW! It opened with the only work on the program that was set in the 21st century. Daniel Charon’s On Being, which premiered in 2021, has ripened into a showcase for a sextet of dance artists who found their ensemble chemistry in a very short time and have polished it to harmonic heights that would be the envy of dance companies anywhere. The current core is on a great performing streak which already was evident last season: Peter Farrow, Megan McCarthy, Alexander Pham, Fausto Rivera, Sasha Rydlizky and Miche’ Smith.
The closer was a tour de force, with its fusion of historical archival footage with the live performance of three excerpts from works by Ririe and Joan Woodbury. It was a rousing and moving tribute.
The first was an excerpt from The Electronic Dance Transformer, where the dancers emulated robots, as part of a computer software game. The work premiered in 1985 at the Imagination Celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. While the six dancers performed, a narrator (Ai Fujii Nelson), dressed like a space opera character, described the movements as each character sprung to digital life. The brilliant touch was how each dancer echoed the video of the movement that was performed by dancers when the work premiered.
The second excerpt came from L’invasion (1991) by Joan Woodbury. This part of the triptych tribute introduced a short video explanation of the work’s provenance in the choreographer’s own words. Then, the video of an earlier performance with the recorded performance of the music by classical guitarists provided the segue into the live performance by the current company.
This work is a provocative sociopolitical commentary. Woodbury said she created the work at a time when the issues of domestic violence and the increasing numbers of homeless people were evident but many, including the media, preferred to skirt and evade confronting the issue directly. The dancers are intimate and intricate in their movement, setting a warm romantic vibe but the images of the issues Woodbury is addressing are always there, even when pushed to the backdrop.
The closing portion of the triptych was an exuberant crowd pleaser, again introducing the performance with an archival segment from an earlier time. Highlighting the historical impact of its geopolitical provenance, Ririe’s Banners of Freedom was premiered at the company’s Pizazz and Percussion production in 1990. The Berlin Wall was brought down, just months after the company had returned from a tour in East Berlin and Ririe had been following the news daily about the inevitable liberation of East Germans from behind the Iron Curtain. The adrenaline rush of the news is perfectly encapsulated and it is worth noting that the current dancers — all of whom who were born after the historical event — had comprehended the excitement that propelled the dance’s creation.
PLAN-B THEATRE: SQUEAK
As exceptional as its offerings of plays for adult and mature audiences have consistently been, Plan-B Theatre also has carved out an equally distinguished series of short plays for young audiences. This year, Squeak by Tito Livas is the main attraction for the 11th annual Free Elementary School Tour (FEST), which is produced by Plan-B Theatre. The play will see performances for children in kindergarten through Grade 3 in Utah schools throughout the current school year. Squeak extends the FEST tradition with excellent effect.
In a public performance earlier this month, as a Ring Around The Rose offering, sponsored by Repertory Dance Theatre, the production, directed by Jerry Rapier, captivated the young audience members, as evidenced by their enthusiasm for the talkback, immediately following the performance, which included some interactive activities on stage.
The formula for a successful FEST production is simple: do not condescend to the audience and provide a constructive yet gentle reminder to adults, parents and teachers that children understand a lot more than what we might credit them for, especially in situations that often make adults act awkwardly.
As noted previously in The Utah Review, for Squeak, Livas turned to an experience that was very fresh in his mind about neurodiversity and the challenges that one of his sons faced when he was in kindergarten and who had been just diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Some of his son’s experiences are recreated in the 25-minute play,
Meanwhile, the actors — Alec Kalled as Squeak and Taylor Wallace in various roles including Squeak’s parent and teacher as well as classmates Squish and Squawk — tapped effectively into their inner child experiences to make the characters approachable and believable to a discriminating audience filled with youngsters. Kalled’s energy was infectious and the naturalness of his movements and spoken lines belied the fact that he was an adult portraying a young character. Likewise, Wallace transitioned effortlessly between the voices of young characters and those of the adults, without a scintilla of awkwardness or lapse of believability.
The production features two casts in rotation. In addition to Kalled and Wallace, Wendy “Joe” Joseph and Niki Rahimi take on the roles. Occasionally, actors from both casts will perform together, respectively.
There also are two free, public performances: Oct. 7 at 11 a.m. at The King’s English Bookshop and Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. in the Chapman Branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library.
NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES: SEPT. 17 CONCERT
NOVA Chamber Music Series was off to a fast, impressive start for the 2023-24 season. Of course, yours truly being of Magyar descent, what could go wrong with a bristling afternoon of music from the Hungarian diaspora.
The Haydn Hungarian trio opener proved to be perfect to get the season rolling. Three musicians of stellar distinction — Will Hagen on violin, Anne Francis Bayless on cello and Cahill Smith at piano — wove through the score beautifully, as if the three have always been playing as an ensemble. The slow movement was exceptional and the third movement was, as we Hungarians say, kinetic for us to join the dance and exclaim, “Ugorjunk!” (jump into dance, literally).
Kurtág’s Hommage a Robert Schumann was a masterful readings of these haunting musical aphorisms, with superbly controlled musicianship. The winds did all the right playful touches with Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, in a witty, crisp reading.
Robert Waters on violin and Jason Hardink on piano closed out the afternoon with a very, very smart performance of Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1, which merited the standing ovation at the end. This particular reading elucidated the bounty of micro-intervals, showing why this work is definitely at the top in the 20th century, for violin sonatas.
This was the type of concert which would amaze metro market audiences anywhere. The entire season is all about all-star musicians. The next concert is Oct, 22, which will open with Debussy’s Petite Suite, composed between 1886 and 1889, and performed by the husband-and wife team of Jason Hardink and Kimi Kawashima.
Lullaby for the Transient (2018) by Michi Wiancko, scored for string quartet and clarinet, will feature Utah Symphony clarinetist E Erin Svoboda-Scott.
For Korean composer Isang Yun’s Gasa, from 1963, featured performers will be violinist Laura Ha and Hardink on piano. Closing out the concert will be an appearance by the Fremont String Quartet, representing the Utah Symphony’s string musicians. Featured will be a work that is not often performed because of its virtuosic demands, William Walton’s String Quartet in A Minor (1945-46). Madeline Adkins (violin), Claude Halter (violin), Brant Bayless (viola) and Matt Johnson (cello) comprise the quartet.
For tickets and more information, see the NOVA Chamber Music Series website.