Cartoon accents, broad comedy nearly derail Pioneer Theatre’s “Orient Express”

Sat Sep 23, 2023 at 12:04 pm
By Catherine Reese Newton
John Tufts is Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, presented by Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: BW Productions

For the first half of the evening at Pioneer Theatre Company’s staging of Murder on the Orient Express, it felt like Agatha Christie was the one being murdered rather than the victim.

The company’s season-opening production of Ken Ludwig’s adaptation, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, offered a handsome, high-energy show Friday night—one that will likely prove too high-energy for some tastes and Christie lovers.

This train is packed with an assortment of cartoonish accents that often overpower character and plot. Murder on the Orient Express is ripe for spoofing, but it isn’t itself a spoof; playing it as broadly as this feels like a serious mistake. A lighter touch would have allowed the humor of Ludwig’s script and the cleverness of Christie’s plotting to land more satisfyingly.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy on this fast-paced ride. John Tufts is charming as Hercule Poirot, Belgium’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. He downplays the character’s fussy quirks (even the detective’s legendary mustache is understated), focusing instead on a Poirot who is inquisitive, incisive, and even a little mischievous. Tufts shines in the play’s denouement, clearly relishing each revelation as he lays them out one by one.

Edward Juvier likewise brings an infectious enthusiasm to the role of Monsieur Bouc, director of the rail line and a longtime friend of Poirot’s who eagerly jumps into the Watson role. Juvier’s Bouc seems even more invested in the whodunit than Poirot is—not just because of his financial stake, but because, in this portrayal, he finds the puzzle irresistible. The laughter from the large, younger-skewing opening-night audience as Juvier pounced on each possible solution was well earned.

Robert Scott Smith does an impressive double turn as Samuel Ratchett, a man so loathsome you’ll cheer for his demise, and Colonel Arbuthnot, reduced in this script to the voice of indignation. Smith distinguishes the brutish mafioso and the blustering Scot adeptly.

Photo: BW Productions

Gisela Chípe gives one of the evening’s more nuanced performances as Countess Andrenyi, who is much more than she seems. Chípe portrays the countess as quick-witted, brilliant and sly, and her chemistry with Tufts is appealing.

Most of the supporting characterizations in this production, however, are more one-note, thanks largely to those aforementioned accents. The audience is bludgeoned with reminders that Mary Debenham (Andrea Morales) is English, Arbuthnot is Scottish, Princess Dragomiroff (Bonnie Black) is Russian, Greta Ohlsson (Amy Bodnar) is Swedish, and Helen Hubbard (Anne Tolpegin) hails from Minne-SOH-ta.

Only Matthew McGloin as the high-strung Hector McQueen and Alec Ruiz as the frantic conductor Michel emerge relatively unscathed. At least, under director Melissa Rain Anderson and dialect coach Adrianne Moore, everyone is on the same page. And Anderson’s blocking and pacing are always on target.

By intermission, those familiar with the story might be wondering how the company will reconcile the moral dilemma in the second act with the broad comedy that has come before. As it turns out, the shift in tone comes as a welcome relief, especially when a couple of key characters’ true identities are unmasked and the accents are dropped.

The stylish sets designed by Jason Simms help propel the action, and not just literally. Not only do these train cars move in delightfully inventive ways, they are elegantly appointed. Phillip R. Lowe’s costume designs also evoke the period beautifully, and Jaymi Lee Smith has devised some fun lighting effects that add punch to the mystery’s resolution.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express plays through October 7;

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