Ever been on one of those nightmarish vacations with a group of total strangers? You know, one where you've never met your host? On a remote British island? With spotty ship service, no telephone line, and dubious electricity? A package deal, where just as you're settling in, your fellow guests start dying off as quickly as they can down their highballs?
OK. So you don't live in an Agatha Christie novel, but you can experience the murderous thrill of it all at Stray Dog Theatre's solid season-opener, And Then There Were None, one of Christie's most beloved whodunits brought to stage.
Directed by Gary F. Bell and boasting a strong ensemble cast, And Then There Were None opens as ten strangers, each harboring a secret of their own, arrive at the island home of the mysterious (and absent) Mr. Owens. No one is quite sure why he or she was invited, but when the butler (a marvelously neurotic Jason Meyers) plays a recording that accuses each guest of a horrible crime, the assembled party quickly realizes the weekend will offer more than peaceful walks on the shore and sporting hillside rambles.
Within moments, one guest is dead. Then another. Then another after that. "In the middle of life we are in death," Emily Brent (a finger-wagging Judy E. Yordon) exclaims, as it dawns on the party that the murderer is among them.
The mystery is given a particularly creepy flourish by their absent host, who has hung a nursery rhyme above ten toy soldiers. The rhyme, which begins, "Ten Little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine," describes each of the coming deaths, after which one of the soldiers mysteriously disappears, until, as the rhyme concludes, "One Little Soldier Boys left all alone; He went and hanged himself and then there were none."
Although somewhat mechanical, Christie's murder-mystery is terrifically entertaining — a guilty pleasure of a puzzle that keeps you guessing at the killer and marveling at how those little figurines keep disappearing before your eyes.
While not the murderer, Rob Lippert certainly kills with his terrific set, an elegant collection of midcentury-modern furnishings courtesy of local vintage shop the Future Antiques. Similarly, Eileen Engel's costumes offer a host of nice touches, decking out of a few of the gents in snazzy belted suits and the ladies in scandalous polka-dotted dresses.
Jeff Kargus is both dashing and fatuous as the mustachioed Philip Lombard, and Michael Juncal is at once shifty and suspicious as the detective William Blore. Other cast standouts include Sarajane Alverson as Mrs. Owens' secretary, Vera Claythorne, and Zachary Stefaniak as the erudite judge, Sir Lawrence John Wargrave.
No, And Then There Were None may not qualify as a dream vacation, but as a murderous romp onstage? You can safely book your passage.
And Then There Were None Through October 25 at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. Tickets are $20 to $25. Call 314-865-1995 or click here.
Follow RFT critic at large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.
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