Even decades after her death, Agatha Christie remains the queen of mysteries. You could curl up in front of the fireplace with one of his 66 novels, or you could brave the cold and see Ken Ludwig Murder on the Orient Express at Curtain Call’s Dressing Room theater.
The play is directed by Joel Harris Fenster, who fell in love with the 1974 version of the film, which he saw on HBO. “It really touched me and started my love for mysteries and Agatha Christie,” he says. He ended up directing stage adaptations of Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Unexpected Guest, Return For Murder, Cobweb, and Black coffee at Curtain Call, the Westport Community Theatre, the Carriage House Arts Center and the Darien Players. “Black coffee,“he notes,” is the only play written by Agatha Christie that features Hercule Poirot. She wrote it from other novels that she herself adapted for the stage. Murder on the Orient Express is the first play in a long time where Poirot has appeared.”
Did Fenster pitch the show to Curtain Call executive director Lou Ursone? Sort of,” he says. “Lou had asked me to direct prosecution witness. I mentioned Murder on the Orient Express as a piece that interested me more. He couldn’t get the rights back then…but things changed and here we are.”
Are the actors going to do accents in this play? Fenster says: “Of course. You can’t do an Agatha Christie mystery without the actors doing their best accents from all over the European continent. We have Belgians, Russians, Hungarians, Scots, Brits, Swedish, French, Middle Eastern and, of course, Americans. But here’s the kicker. Accents are great. Back when Fenster ran The unexpected guest for Curtain Call, the Long Wharf Theater presented Kathleen Turner The Murder of Sister George. Viewers have complained about not understanding accents Sister George, including this review. There was no such problem with the casting of Fenster.
The cast primarily includes Curtain Call veterans and Eric Marquez (Bouc) and Sally Rose Zuckert (Mary through Jan. 30), who make their Curtain Call veterans. Phil Garfinkle plays Poirot. Ann Alford plays Mrs. Hubbard, Tom Petrone portrays Ratchett, Jim Muthersbaugh plays both Michele and the Butler, and Mat Young is Arbuthnot. To complete the cast, Maggie Haber as a countess, Gail Yudain as a princess, Céline Montaudy as Greta, Aaron Newcome as MacQueen and Dana DiCerto as Mary (from February 3 to 6).
In addition to Fenster, the production team includes set design by Peter Barbieri, Jr, lighting design by Jamie LaJoie, costumes by Robin Mazzola, stage manager by Tori Ready and Kevin Tangney.
This has a large cast, especially since the show will be presented in the smaller of Curtain Call’s two theaters. The size of the cast differs from each of the two film productions. What are the challenges of working with a lot of actors and what does Fenster do to make it seem so easy? “Eleven actors in the Dressing Room Theater is a walk in the park,” he says. “I’ve run larger castings on smaller stages.”
Fenster also made Ludwig’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Does he also direct non-mysteries?
“Yes,” he said. “Baskerville was actually more of a comedy than a mystery since it was five actors, one playing Holmes, one playing Watson, and three others playing about 30 other characters. But I did do dramas (The heiress), comedies (Sounds off, Sly Fox), Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) and musicals (Pippin, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, City of Angels, and Chess).
Did he write plays or mysteries? “Not since college,” he admits, “but I never know what I might do next and there are stories going through my head.”
What do you think is Agatha Christie’s greatest appeal and why do you think her works remain so popular? He says: “I think everyone loves a good mystery. Audiences love to be kept on their toes as they try to stay ahead of the story. Dame Agatha is the queen of the genre. She wrote many classics that have twists and turns that keep the audience/readers guessing until the very end. And even then there are always surprises. She is still popular because her works are timeless, even though they are from a The fact that the new film version of Kenneth Branagh Murder on the Orient Express was still defined as a period piece, but added a bit more diversity to its cast, and was successful enough to warrant a sequel (Death on the Nile which opens in theaters the weekend after our show closes) says there’s still life left in these classics. The fact that community theaters around the world are returning to Christie’s works and getting full houses (at least pre-COVID), shows that audiences will turn up again and again to try and see if they can get ahead of the game that Dame Agatha is playing…
Get your tickets for Murder on the Orient Express by calling 203-461-6358 or visiting www.curtaincallinc.com. Production begins Thursday, January 20 and ends Sunday, February 6. Performances will take place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 p.m., from January 20 to February 6. The Dressing Room Theater is located at the Sterling Farms Theater Complex, 1349 Newfield Avenue, Stamford, CT. Doors open half an hour before show time. Tickets are $35 for adults, $25 for seniors, and $20 for children under 21. There are discounted Flex Pass memberships that offer savings of 25% and more.) Bring your own food and enjoy cabaret-style seating.
Curtain Call has complied with all COVID safety guidelines. Please review the COVID policy on the homepage and note that rehearsal footage shows the actors wearing masks.
Those who have yet to see a production of Curtain Call should know that it is Stamford’s oldest and only non-profit theater company. There are year-round productions at the Kweskin Theater and Dressing Room Theatre, located on the beautiful Sterling Farms campus in Stamford. There are a minimum of 12 full-scale productions, sometimes at both theatres, plus Shakespeare on the Green each summer, and other special events such as a summer youth program, interactive murder mysteries, concerts and comic evenings. Curtain Call also offers acting classes for children. It has been voted the best local theater group in Fairfield County for ten consecutive years in the annual readers’ poll of Fairfield County Weekly and has received numerous BEST OF awards from Stamford magazine and StamfordMore magazine. He received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2011 and the Fairfield County Cultural Alliance’s ACE Award for Excellence in the Arts and Culture in 2016.