OGUNQUIT – Could “Murder on the Orient Express” contain a subtle allusion to the rise of Nazism and eventual global war? After all, the 1934 Agatha Christie mystery classic – adapted in 2017 for the stage by talented contemporary playwright Ken Ludwig (of “Lend Me a Tenor” fame) – does point to 1934 as a time when, “Europe will be changing. There will be chaos.” Christie experts generally point to the Lindbergh kidnapping as the major historical influence for the Daisy Armstrong back story in what is arguably legendary fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot’s greatest case. At the same time, the play’s 1934 warning does allow for additional subtext. Still, no matter the interpretation, there should be no disagreement about the superbly designed and acted staging at Ogunquit Playhouse.
Christie fans will remember that Poirot, her great Belgian detective, is heading back to London after a visit to the Middle East. Poirot has been fortunate enough to secure a compartment in Istanbul on the fabled Orient Express train – designed with singular elegance in red velvet and gold by Beowulf Boritt. Director Shaun Kerrison describes the Orient Express as “a palace on wheels,” and Boritt gives it properly royal treatment. With the help of Jason Lee Courson’s inspired projection design and Richard Latta’s nuanced lighting, the train’s blood-stained odyssey takes on vivid immediacy for both the audience and for onstage detectives. Gifted designer William Ivey Long complements the Manet-style tableau with period couture, complete with feathered hats and handsome vests.
The cast of characters’ varied attire rightly matches their multicultural origins. Helen Hubbard proves a histrionic American with eclectic outfits, while menacing Samuel Ratchett’s attentive personal secretary, Scotsman Hector MacQueen dons traditional wear. Gruff Russian Princess Dragomiroff sports an evening dress with bling and feathered head gear, and her Swedish maid Greta Ohlsson generally keeps to clothes more suited to work. Colonel Arbuthnot and his close friend Mary Arbuthnot look sharp in conservative but tasteful outfits. Countess Andrenyi stands out in sleek and stylish clothes. Poirot questions the impressions they give as suspects along with their alibis and possible motives in the stabbing of Rachett.
Under director Kerrison’s skillful guidance, Steven Rattazzi captures Poirot’s self-pride, amusing mannerisms, and saber-like interrogative skills. Anita Gillette brings smart understatement to the role of Dragomiroff, highlighting her haughty condescension. Kate Lopresi finds the mystery and the majestic bearing of the countess. Stephen James Anthony has the right obsequiousness as MacQueen. Christopher Gurr has the right reserve as Compagnie Internationale des Wagon Lits director Monsieur Bouc, who often accompanies Poirot as he questions suspects.
While the strong cast possesses impressive ensemble strength, clear standouts are Rattazzi, Gillette and Ruth Gottschall as Hubbard. Gottschall’s complex portrayal of Hubbard turns her amusingly outspoken at some moments and curiously careful at others.
Christie buffs may remember that Poirot offers two solutions for Rachett’s murder. Whether you recall them or not, or even approach the staging as a newcomer, Ogunquit Playhouse’s Broadway caliber edition makes passage on this Christie gem an unforgettable trip.
“Murder on the Orient Express,” Ogunquit Playhouse, through August 31. 207-646-5511 or ogunquitplayhouse.org.