Subdued though the action of Agatha Christie’s work is, when in expert hands it is delightful to see upon the stage. At the Fredric March Theatre of the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, the staging was handled expertly.
The parlor drama is set on the secluded “Soldier Island,” where ten individuals, all unknown to one another, are accused by a mysterious voice of murder. As they seek to find their accuser, the accused are executed one by one until there are none.
Christie’s novel could almost be called a psychological thriller. And psychology is at the forefront of Oshkosh’s production. Under the direction of Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft, the actors hit deliberate and interesting points, creating eye-catching stage-pictures, resulting in not a single dull visual moment. If the ensemble cast knows how to do one thing, it’s direct the eye where it ought to go. For example, when this accusatory voice first confronts the cast, naming each character in turn, the magnificent blocking of Purse-Wiedenhoeft, executed by the terrific ensemble, shifts the audience eye around the room through the subtle movements of the actors so that we in our seats stare at each character with the same awe and condescension as their comrades.
Throughout the play this masterful handling of tableau continues. This was enhanced by the consciousness of the actors in their own bodies. B. Nicholas Carter, playing the elderly General Mackenzie, shuffles about in his weary bones, drawing the eye as he displays his age. Garret Johnson and Parker Sweeny, playing Philip Lombard and William Blore respectively, play off one another delightfully, knowing fully the length and extent of their bodies and just what effect their presence can have onstage, even, at times, comedic effect.
The nervous humor pervading the action is also an essential part of the production’s charm. Johnson has mastered the dry British humor in the face of the most terrifying of situations, a laughter-despite-fear mentality that even the audience picked up on, who chuckled nearly every time another body was discovered—not because it was funny, but because we were nervous.
Body awareness seems to be a strength of this Theatre department, and I think some of the credit is due costume designer Kathleen Donnelly and her crew. Each of the gentlemen looked quite dandy in his well-fitted suit (a feat not so simple when there are so many body types to manage). And the ladies were varied according to character: Shelby Edwards’s Mrs. Rogers a frumpy cook and servant, Mary Margaret Clementi’s Vera Claythorne a delicate young woman who is almost meant to draw the eye, and Kellie Wambold’s Emily Brent a dowdy pietistic older woman intent to most deliberately not be seen. In their dinner attire, these characters fit the picture of the island-house parlor set (designed by Roy Hoglund) perfectly.
In a production such as this, the emphasis is placed on pictures. Were flash photography allowed, no snapshot would be a bad snapshot in this play. Through the frame of the stage, Christie’s drama is given truly colorful life.