August may signal summer's end, but it's also the start of a new season for Kansas City Actors Theatre. And I'm not alone in feeling glad at KCAT's return. At a preview of The Mousetrap, the house was almost full. Agatha Christie's famous whodunit kicks off the troupe's "Summer of Mystery" and KCAT's eighth year.
This self-defined "artist-led and artist-driven" company consistently does skillful work. And it isn't shy about challenging its audience — last August, it put on two Harold Pinter plays. With The Mousetrap, it engages in some fun, too.
Christie devised this story as a 45-minute radio play. Its popularity led her to rewrite it as a full stage show, and it has long held the record as the longest running play in history. In London, The Mousetrap is in its 60th year of continuous production, and in the same theater since 1974. That's tens of thousands of performances and millions of viewers.
Even for those who don't generally read mysteries or seek out that genre in theater or film (someone like me), The Mousetrap works as a brainteaser, something to puzzle over and analyze as it plays out. And it contains plenty of humor, even though it's based on a true (and sad) occurrence (three children who were placed in a horribly neglectful and abusive foster home in the 1940s). The underlying event is woven into the smart script, lending it depth.
Mark Robbins, a KCAT founding member, deftly directs a talented local cast in a staging that begins with such a bang, you're startled into attention from its first moments.
The action takes place in a guesthouse in 1950s rural England, not far from London. Mollie and Giles Ralston, married about a year, have just opened Monkswell Manor and are welcoming its first five patrons. The day brings heavy snow, the kind that strands travelers. And a radio announcer has just delivered news of a murder in London and a witness's description of a man seen in the area at the time.
The eight actors, all strong, comprise a true ensemble in their depictions of discrete, well-drawn personalities. Natalie Liccardello, as Mollie, and Charles Fugate, as Giles, could be considered the leads — they're the inn's proprietors. But Rusty Sneary, as Detective Sgt. Trotter, is also a commanding presence, and each performer focuses your attention whenever his or her character has the floor.
Matt Weiss nearly steals Act 1 with his buoyant and comical interpretation of Christopher Wren, the first guest on the scene. Peggy Friesen is the uptight, old-school Mrs. Boyle, who can't find anything right about the place. (The post-World War I societal shifts alluded to in Downton Abbey come to mind in Mrs. Boyle's references to England's changes after World War II.) She wonders why a taxi didn't meet her at the station and why she doesn't see servants. And she's always cold. Gary Neal Johnson's Major Metcalf maintains a more comforting, low-key presence, which doesn't mean he goes unnoticed. No one does.
As guests continue to arrive and interact within the manor's confines, Emily Peterson shows up with a low voice and masculine clothing to embody the enigmatic Miss Casewell. And the adept Victor Raider-Wexler is the Italian Mr. Paravicini, who appears without a reservation because his car became stuck in the snow. Hmm. They all refer to that murder in London, still on the news, aware that they're isolated and that the police haven't found their suspect.
And ... I must stop here. Describing the plot further risks giving something away and ruining the fun.
The top-notch production is complemented by the attractive great hall of Monkswell Manor (design by Jim Misenheimer) and the period and winter-appropriate costuming (by Lauren Roark). In fact, you might take a wrap yourself. The H&R Block City Stage Theatre, in Union Station, can run on the cooler side. And there are already shivers from this show's intrigue.