By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission
A good murder-mystery is a staple of community theatre and you don’t get any better than a tried and true Agatha Christie tale. She had it down to a science and have had readers and audiences guessing and scratching their heads for the past nine decades (coming up on 100 years in 2020) and many have adapted her novels into stage plays, including Christie herself. Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s latest production, A Murder is Announced by Leslie Darbon, Directed by Michael Crook and Assistant Director Lou Otero, brings one of those stories to life, having us scratching our heads and wondering… whodunnit?
A Murder is Announced, the novel, was first published in June of 1950 and both the novel and the play concern themselves with an announcement in the local paper of a murder to be committed at a planned birthday party at a local boarding house. The house is owned by Letitia, a staunch, soft spoken woman, who has an old friend living with her, Dora “Bunny” Bunner (the birthday girl), as well as her adult niece and nephew, Julia and Patrick, who she hasn’t seen since they were small children. Joining the fray are the maid/cook/housekeeper, Mitzi, a steely Russian, and three neighbors, Edmund Swettenham, his mother, and the famous and inquisitive Mrs. Marple. At the party, a fuse is blown momentarily, an intruder breaks in in the dark, scaring the party-goers, and when the lights come back up, the intruder is dead on the floor. Enter a patient Inspector Craddock, and you have the makings of a good old fashioned Christie mystery.
Though no Set Designer is listed in the program, the design for this production uses the intimate space wisely. One is transported to a parlor room of a small English country house with not bells and whistles which is absolutely appropriate for this piece. Rachel DiGraizia and Joshua Perry (the two names listed as “Set Construction” and the only two names associated with the set in the program) have put together a sound set that helps the action of this mystery and assists the staging that the audience should be watching carefully.
Speaking of staging, Director Michael Crook and Assistant Director Lou Otero seem to have a strong vision and have executed it beautifully. Staging a murder-mystery is no small feat, one must understand the script, but also the action and has to work that out within the space he or she has. Crook and Otero’s staging is smooth and easy to follow and it shows they have a deep comprehension of this material and the presentation is praise-worthy, indeed.
Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, Jim Morgan pulls double duty in supporting, but important role as Rudi Sherz/Sergeant Mellors, the unfortunate intruder and a constable, respectively and he pulls both characters off nicely with decisive blocking and dedication to his roles. Claire Levine takes on the character of Mrs. Sweetenham, a neighbor, and though she seems stiff and scripted, she seems to understand the frailty of her character and makes a good showing.
Donna Zubrowski tackles the role of Dora Bunner, a childhood friend of Letitia’s and a woman who seems to be slipping slowing but surely into dementia, forgetting simple things and remembering things from the far past. Zubrowski has a tight grasp on this character, but gives a rigid performance with a deliberate delivery that makes it unnatural at times, but her chemistry with her cast mates is fantastic and she plays the character adequately enough to get the point across nicely. In the same vein, Chloe Scully takes on the role of Phillipa Haymes
Phil Vannoorbeeck takes on the role of Patrick Simmons and Ann Marie Taglavore portrays Julia Simmons, the young brother-sister team who may or may not have ulterior motives for visiting their sweet, old aunt. Both Vannoorbeeck and Taglavore give strong, confident portrayals and know their characters well. Vannoorbeeck may be playing the character a bit larger than he should, at times, but still comes off as believable and natural. Taglavore is the stronger actor, giving a smooth, natural performance and delivery are both natural and effortless.
A few highlights of this production are Jim Gerhardt as Edmund Sweetenham, Mel Tillery as Mitzi, and Catherine Shinaberry as Letitia Blacklock. Gerhardt is comfortable in his role and has a great presence on stage with natural delivery of the dialogue and a solid take on the character. Shinaberry is aptly cast in her role of Letitia, and, though she is too soft spoken at times, making it hard to make out what she is saying, she seems to embody this character nicely and has a strong comprehension of her character. Tillery is phenomenal as Mitzi and is the one to watch whenever she’s on stage. Her delivery, in a believable Russian accent, is impressive and her energy is second to none, making for one of the strongest showings in this production.
Rounding out the cast we have the sleuths, Inspector Craddock played by Jim Fitzpatrick and the loveable, famously intuitive Mrs. Marple, portrayed by Ashley Gerhardt. These two are the definite standouts in this production and pull their characters off effortlessly. Fitzpatrick is near perfect in this role and he seems to completely embody this character. His delivery is flawless and his chemistry with the rest of the ensemble is on point and it makes for a strong, faultless performance. Gerhardt, who may be a bit young to play Mrs. Marble just yet, still gives an impeccable performance, regardless of this. She knows the character well, and she portrays her with a certain charm that makes you like her from the get. I’m a big fan of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (who is probably structured after Mrs. Marple), so I’m pretty hard on any character that resembles her, but Gerhardt hits it out of the park with this performance. She’s a wonderful character actress and seems to become this character making for a standout performance, overall.
Final thought…A Murder is Announced at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore is well put-together presentation of a great Agatha Christie story with mostly solid performances and a solid vision from its Director and Assistant Director. Being it’s a murder-mystery, there are times when the dialogue seems to drag along, but, it’s the nature of the beast… things have to be explained thoroughly, so, the excessive exposition is a necessary evil. The story is dated, but definitely not stale, and is still relatable today. Murder and/or mystery really never go out of style. Get your tickets now. You wouldn’t want to miss this classic this season.
This is what I thought of Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s production of A Murder is Announced… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
A Murder is Announced will play through May 5 at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 8212 Philadelphia Road. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.
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