Agatha Christie thriller on track to open Ethington season with a bang

Hercule Poirot (played by Cooper Townley, right) searches for clues alongside Bouc (David Loewen) and the Countess (Jasmine Coxey) in "Murder on the Orient Express," opening tonight at Ethington Theatre.

Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow

Could Agatha Christie be AGATHA CHRISTIE in 2023, when cellphones would make it unlikely you’d ever be stranded or cut off from the outside world?

When GPS trackers assure you that it’s improbable that you could get lost or be untraceable?

When technology means murderers’ identities are just a DNA strand away?

Passengers on the Orient Express fear for their lives in GCU Theatre's production of Agatha Christie classic "Murder on the Orient Express."

“You can’t really do a play like that (an Agatha Christie murder-mystery) and update it because so much of the technology would make the plot devices not make sense. If Romeo and Juliet had cellphones, they wouldn’t have died. ‘Oh, I’m pretending.’ Hit send,” said director Michael Kary of Grand Canyon University’s first theatrical production of the season, “Murder on the Orient Express.” The thriller is debuting at 7:30 p.m. today in Ethington Theatre for a two-weekend run.

A time period update in this case would mean suspending your sense of disbelief, and why have that?

So, “We’re setting it in 1934 and not messing with that at all,” said Kary of the Agatha Christie classic, whose brilliant plot follows a businessman, Samuel Ratchett (played by AJ Flores and Payton Davis), who has been murdered in his sleeping car on the Orient Express. An assailant has stabbed him 12 times. Concerningly, the murderer is still on the train, which has been stranded by a horrible snowstorm.

Princess Dragomiroff (portrayed by Anna Koth) is one of the suspects in "Murder on the Orient Express."

As fate would have it, one of the passengers happens to be world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Cooper Townley), and he must solve the case before the murderer strikes again.

“We don’t get to do thrillers that often at GCU,” Kary said.

And this one is a doozy. The plot was inspired in part by the Lindbergh case, a real-life tragedy in which aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was held for $50,000 ransom and, though the ransom was paid, was never returned.

Ethington’s last foray into the Agatha Christie murder-mystery realm was “The Moustrap” in 2016.

“These are great stories where people are trapped in one single environment and can’t get out until we solve this thing. It’s a good formula,” Kary said, “and it really does put a human in a boiler. … I think that’s what most of the books are about: what pushes people to do these unspeakable things.”

Not that Agatha Christie has become part of the background chatter by any means.

Her thrillers have re-emerged in three recent films starring Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot: “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Death on the Nile” and “A Haunting in Venice," which is currently in theatres and based on the author's "Hallowe'en Party."

Kary said the play version of "Murder on the Orient Express" is somewhat different from the book and the movies. The original novel offers up many more suspects, while the play has fewer characters to suit a theatrical audience.

Although the Theatre Department doesn’t delve into thrillers too often, when it does, it has to be something spectacular.

Macqueen (Anthony Piano, left) and Ratchett (Peyton Davis) in the GCU Theatre Department’s production of “Murder on the Orient Express."

And this production is, according to its stars.

“Its beautiful, our set design, our lighting design, our sound design are all incredible,” said the mustachioed Townley, who aims to chew through the role of the indelible detective and grew a glorious mustache over the summer to get primed to play the character. “It almost looks like a film onstage.”

And then there are those take-you-away soundscapes by sound designer Eric Johnson. Standing in the back of Ethington Theatre and peering down onto the empty stage just before rehearsals on Wednesday night, the chitter and chatter and clanging of sounds emulating a crowd of people emanates from the speakers and stirs the imagination. It suggests time and place, and sets the scene for the visuals to come.

“There will be train sounds,” he said with a smile, as those soundscapes aim to envelop the audience and enclose them in the theatre space, much like the characters onstage are trapped on a train and stranded at the murder scene.

Ben Sparling plays Col. Arbuthnot, and Kaylie Kraft is Mary in GCU Theatre's production of "Murder on the Orient Express."

The cast even headed to the GCU Recording Studio to create some of the soundscapes Johnson is using in the play.

“He’s using the theatre like we’ve never used it before, soundwise,” Kary said, adding that the students really expanded their knowledge of how to use sound to bring a play to life. “ … It was really a great learning experience for them, and it’s really just going to boost the entire level of production.”

Like Christie’s 1930s-styled jet-setting novels, which whisked readers to the Nile, Istanbul and England country manors even before jets debuted in 1939, the play intends to be just as rich, lush and escapist, thanks to the period costumes and sets.

It’s a dramatic backdrop for the complex characters whose tragedies are peeled back in layers on the stage.

Kaylee Wilson-Woolridge stars as Mrs Hubbard and Cooper Townley is detective Hercule Poirot.

For Townley, that means embodying a Poirot that isn’t quite Branagh’s interpretation of the character in the latest slate of Agatha Christie films. In the new movies, Poirot shows signs of having obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that compulsion drives him to hone in on things, overanalyze and relentlessly solve a case.

Townley’s Poirot isn’t OCD-driven.

Instead, “He’s a noticer. He observes,” Townley said, particularly those tiny details. “… He’s lived long enough to know what he wants and what he does not want, what he likes and doesn’t like.”

He appreciates good food, good people and wonderful scenery. But it’s also obvious what he doesn’t like in a very black-and-white sense of morality.

IF YOU GO:
What: Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”
Where: Ethington Theatre, Grand Canyon University campus
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, as well as 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29-30 and 2 p.m. Oct. 1
Tickets: $10-$20, available here, or call the GCU Arena Box Office, (602) 639-8979
Information: Check out the Ethington Theatre Instagram

“He will not support any kind of evil or murder or crime.

“One of my favorite parts of the direction of the story is the questioning of what is the right thing in this case," Townley said.

Kaylee Wilson-Woolridge, who hadn't read Agatha Christie before taking on her role, portrays this show’s very big, very dynamic Mrs. Hubbard. What she loves about the show is that, despite it going to dark places, this version is “trying to bring a bit of a brighter spin.”

Mrs. Hubbard (Kaylee Wilson-Woolridge) is a little too spunky for her good in "Murder on the Orient Express."

Her Mrs. Hubbard is spunky, for one, and though Wilson-Woolridge feels very different from her character, what she finds similar is that she’s a happy person, and Mrs. Hubbard has that kind of aura about her.

David Loewen plays confident, efficient Constantine Bouc, who runs the Orient Express. But then the murder occurs, and as things start to fall apart, Bouc’s exterior start to crumble and he no longer stands as upright as he did before.

Loewen has read Agatha Christie before and, acting since he was a child, has performed in his share of murder-mysteries.

Detective Hercule Poirot (Cooper Townley, right) shares his deductions with Bouc (David Loewen) in "Murder on the Orient Express," which opens the Theatre Department's 2023-24 season of plays.

For him, this GCU production “is one of the most unique shows I’ve ever seen done at Ethington … It’s utilizing a lot of things: clever audio and lighting tricks that I’ve never seen us do, and there’s more moving set pieces in this show than I’ve ever seen in a show, which I think is amazing. The opening of the show alone is worth the price of admission.”

Kary says what makes this story such a classic and a blueprint for the detective murder-mystery genre is the idea of people trapped in a single environment. Nobody in. Nobody out. Not even the murderer.

And then there are the characters.

As the play evolves and suspicion and fear start to flow, “You find out what they’re made of,” Kary said.

Passengers get ready to board the train in "Murder on the Orient Express."

He added, “What I like about this one is that it’s NOT about who did it (the murder), but what do we do with that information?”

The big moral conundrum this story leaves us with is this: Is there any time when a crime is justified?

Another plus when it comes to this production is that many of the roles are double-cast, meaning actors will be playing different roles some nights, “so the play will feel different from night to night.”

So come watch the show twice, because an Agatha Christie story might be stymied by modern technology, but as an example of a detective novel masterpiece, Agatha Christie is still Agatha Christie, even in 2023.

Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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GCU News: GCU Theatre season: Sometimes things are more than they appear

GCU News: GCU’s Ethington Theatre dressed up for 2023-24 season

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