Dorset Theatre's Mrs. Christie a hit

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DORSET — The Dorset Theatre Festival continued its summer slate with the world premiere of Heidi Armbruster's "Mrs. Christie," an imaginative and speculative romp through a moment in Agatha Christie's personal history, which should delight fans of the mystery genre, with no small reason.

Mysteries, particularly Christie's, have long been a theater staple, and not just here in the United States, but globally. The genre is wildly popular in books and on TV and there is never a shortage of fans somewhere that will take in a play — something many stage companies well know when looking to keep the coffers full and pay the bills.

Because of this, any creative idea somehow linked to these stories or to Christie herself are a cause for frenzy, and so Armbruster's plot found a very nice preview night crowd at Dorset, a harbinger for the show's run to follow.

The story beings on the eve of Agatha Christie's (Mary Bacon) storied disappearance in 1926, which also involved her philandering husband Archibald (Michael Frederic), his lover Nancy Neele (Hannah Rose Caton), the publisher Collins (Stephen Stocking) and housekeeper Charlotte (Betsy Hoag).

The plot shifts back and forth in time, telling of the parallel life of modern-day Christie groupie, Lucy (Jennifer Mudge) while she attends a convention of mystery aficionados at the Christie homestead. With a little help from some of Christie's favorite characters, Hercule Poirot (Sevan Greene) and Jane [Marple] (Susan Greenhill), of course.

Armbruster's charges were ready to go, and on preview night, almost miraculously, then went through the entire production start to finish for the first time ever — including rehearsals! Armbruster, sitting just three seats to my left, seemed to be genuinely enjoying the show, reflecting perhaps on her own admitted autobiographical link to the Lucy character.

The actors all did tremendous work, with just slightly extra nods going to Greene and Greenhill for their outrageously silly caricatures of Poirot and Marple, while Bacon continued to be the gem that Dorset audiences have come to know.

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Alexander Woodward's modular set maintained the usual excellence we have come to expect from him. Costumes by Sarah Nietfeld were stylistically fun in moving between eras, but marvelous in the 1920s. Lights by Stacey Derosier were well timed and the period music from Fitz Patton's sound fit perfectly into the vibe of the mid-1920s. Finally, Alyssa K. Howard's stage management was logistically fine tuned to the needs of the production.

There's no question in my mind that this play, which lasted about 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission, is going to be a hit. It's got imagination, a fun storyline, and while funny in places there is enough of a human element to it to offer up a bit of gravitas to give it a most competent feel.

Armbruster, who is no doubt working on revisions already, has got some dialogue tweaking to do. Her script is, in some places, so clever and so attuned to the rapid and dense verbal exchanges of pre-war performances that her audiences have a hard time following it in some places.

This is ostensibly because American actors struggle with British accents, and as a result, in working harder to nail them, don't project as well. This leads to key exchanges that end up half-heard or even less. The playwright would then do well to slice out some of that verbiage and allow her Thespians to slow it down, well so we can hear them.

But that's inside baseball, really, "Mrs. Christie" is fun, thoughtful, and most of all, imaginative and entertaining. The story is relatable, but what makes it so sweet is the loyal fandom that never goes anywhere — except to see this worthy new play. Go join them and you won't regret it.

"Mrs. Christie" by Heidi Armbruster, and directed by Giovanna Sardelli will run through Aug. 17 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., Dorset. Info and tickets: 802-867-2223, ext. 101, or dorsettheatrefestival.org

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn., Email: tchalkias@aol.com. Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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