By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
I always enjoy a good murder mystery and they’re always good money makers for community theatres and no one writes a good murder mystery like the legendary Agatha Christie. This summer, Cockpit and Court Summer Theatre’s first offering in their cabaret space is Toward Zero by Agatha Christie, (who also penned the novel) and Gerald Verner and is directed by Joey Hellman.
Toward Zero tells the tale of a house party (of course) at Gull Point, the house of Lady Tressilian, at Saltcreek, Cornwall. The guests consist of an old family friend, a divorced couple, his 2nd wife and her suave friend, and a barrister, who is also and old friend of the family. The divorced couple are cordial and may still have something for each other, the suave friend has a thing for the 2nd wife, the 2nd wife hates the 1st wife, the old family friend has a thing for the 1st wife, and the hostess and the barrister want everyone to be mindful of their manners. Throw in a Superintendent, an Inspector, and a P.C., and, oh, yeah, a murder, then BOOM… you have an Agatha Christie mystery.
At first glance, I knew I was in for a treat when I walked into the cabaret and was greeted by a beautiful, classic set by Scenic Designer Michael Rasinski. Designing for theatre in the round is difficult but Rasinski pulled it off flawlessly and brilliantly with vintage furniture, wainscoting on the walls, a chandelier hanging in the middle of the stage, and a chaise lounge that, when this production is over, I’d like transported to my house! No detail was overlooked down to the light switches, which were the old fashioned push two-buttoned type rather than the modern one-switch we use today. The set design was practically perfect! Rasinski also pulled double duty as the Lighting Designer and he, too, pulled this off brilliantly with lighting that set the moods perfectly for each scene.
Throughout the production, Sound Designer James Lefter added the usual murder mystery show sound effects such as thunder storms and glass breaking but they sounded like quality effects and not just a generic mp3 that can be downloaded off the Internet (even if they were) and they were all placed perfectly. Director Joey Hellman and Stage Manager Marcy Petrick put together a great soundtrack of music including classical instrumental pieces as well as popular vocal works of the mid 20th century.
Kudos definitely goes to Costumer Eva Grove as costume designs were spot on and thought-out for both formal and casual wear for 1955. There were quite a few costumes for both the male and female actors in this production and each one was appropriate and natural.
Getting into the performance aspect of the production, let me preface by stating that, as a whole, Toward Zero is a very appropriate show for community theatre and Agatha Christie can always be counted on to give the audience a good story and she’ll always keep us on our toes. However, play adaptations of Christie stories can be challenging, especially pieces such as Toward Zero, one of her lesser known adaptations. Even though Christie herself had a hand in writing this adaptation, and it was your classic Agatha Christie whodunnit and predictable, I still found the script a bit jumbled and hard to follow, at times, if you aren’t paying close attention.
Overall, the cast did a fine job with this challenging piece and Hellman made some wise choices such as impeccable blocking, which is difficult in the round, where no actor’s back was facing the audience for any extended period of time, but, as I sat there watching the action unfold, I said to myself, “I think this cast needs to go out for a drink with each other!” because there seemed to be little chemistry within the cast which is of the utmost importance when it comes to any play, especially a murder mystery. The chemistry that is present is OK, but does feel a bit strained.
At various points in the script, characters speak of the feeling of “something wrong” or “something out of place” but, because of the lack of chemistry, unfortunately, there is a lack of much needed tension. For there having just been a murder in the house, and suspicion being thrown around, one would think one could cut the tension with a knife, but, that’s not the case here. It’s as if the actors are just going through the motions of a predictable script. However, let me clearly state I don’t blame the cast or the director… I reiterate… a murder mystery is a challenging undertaking!
Speaking of the cast, in general, the British accents are admirable, but, overall, a dialect coach may have been beneficial all around. The actors knew their blocking and their lines quite well and spoke very naturally with each other.
Christopher D. Cahill as Thomas Royde is the first character we meet and, though it’s a bit difficult to understand what he’s saying, at times (I think the British accent is tripping him up occasionally), he has a very good and demanding stage presence and demeanor and knew and played his character very well and gave a strong performance and his vape pipe was brilliant and added to his character.
Kristin Miller takes on the role of Kay Strange, the 2nd, discontented wife of Neville Strange, played by Randy Dalmas. Miller has a tendency to take her character over the top with seemingly one emotion – upset – accompanied by pouty faces, crossed arms, and rolling eyes every time she steps onto the stage. However, the character is unhappy being where she is and has to deal with an ex-wife, so, Miller’s choices aren’t off the mark and she pulls off a very good, though mellow-dramatic, performance. Kay’s cohort, Ted Latimer, is nicely played by Andrew Wilkin and another character even mentions that Latimer is “a dramatic fellow” and, boy, does Wilkin take this to heart. It’s almost fitting that his character and Miller’s characters are so close because he, too, takes the character a bit over the top, at times, with the same rolling of the eyes and pouty faces. Regardless, he gives a strong performance and has the perfect look for his character.
Kelly Rardon tackles the roll of Mary Aldin, the pitiful Lady’s Maid to Lady Tressilian, played by Suzanne Young. Rardon gives a strong performance as Mary and is comfortable moving about the stage, giving a very nice performance but Young is one of the highlights of this production as she gives a very strong, believable performance as the old, crippled Lady Tressilian and has a demanding presence onstage as the matriarch of the bunch, shouting orders, and reminding everyone of the manners of a bygone era. Young is certainly one to watch!
A Baltimore favorite and a fixture in community theatre, John Rowe puts himself in the role of Matthew Treves, a barrister (an attorney, in America), and old friend of the family. He gives a strong performance as a stuffy, old fashioned gentleman of good background and is comfortable on the stage. Well, after being involved in community theatre for over 40 years, one should be comfortable, and Mr. Rowe certainly is! He certainly does take time with his lines, at times, maybe a bit too much time, but he is clear and strong and gives a very strong, believable performance.
Rounding out the cast are Thomas C. Hessenauer, Ryan Frank, and Connor Moore playing Superintendent Battle, Inspector Leach, and P.C. Benson, respectively. Hessenauer, a veteran of Baltimore community theatre, does a wonderful job as the lawman called in to investigate the inevitable murder and he has a strong understanding of his character and is believable as the person who takes charge to find out whodunnit! Occasionally, he comes on strong right out of the gate pointing a suspicious finger at the people he is questioning instead of transitioning gradually into that suspicion, but overall, Hessenauer pulls his role off very well.
As Inspector Leach, Ryan Frank seems to play the part more like an inexperienced young man who got his position because of nepotism rather than on merit. His character pops in, carrying various pieces of evidence and stands on the perimeter while his uncle, Superintendent Battle, solves the crimes. Script wise, I’m not sure the character is needed, but Frank plays the part admirably with the material he’s given and the same can be said for Connor Moore, as P.C. Benson. This character seems to just fill space on stage but could easily be cut, as well. However, Moore, in his impeccable costume and brilliant whistle, pulls off the part nicely and it’s obvious he’s giving 100%!
Two highlights of this production of Toward Zero are Stephanie Horvath and Randy Dalmas. The two play ex-spouses, Audrey Strange and Neville Strange and they pull off the parts flawlessly. Randy Dalmas has a strong presence and seems to understand his character. He moves comfortably around the stage and, if I might add, has a very nice, smooth voice that lends well to the British accent he pulls off beautifully. Horvath glides across the stage comfortably and effortlessly, embodying the character of an ex-wife who may or may not be who we think she is. Though a few of her reactions to major events in the show could have been more thought out, she is still gives a strong, believable performance. Hovarth and Dalmas make a dynamic duo that are a joy to watch.
Toward Zero is indeed a good show and has some very talented folks involved so, if you find yourself looking for something to do for the next couple of weekends, check it out! Agatha Christie always delivers and it’s always fun to see if you and your friends can solve the mystery before the big reveal!
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one 10 minute intermission
This is my take on this production of Toward Zero… what do you think?
Toward Zero will play Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through June 26th at CCBC, Essex Campus, Community Center. For tickets, call 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.