By MICHAEL SPROLES
Born in the English seaside town of Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie became one of the best-selling novelists of all time, known and beloved for her 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, and creation of the immensely popular detective characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.
One of her most successful novels, Murder on the Orient Express, was given a blockbuster movie release worldwide last November. The film received mixed reviews, largely because it didn’t add anything new or innovative to previous adaptations.
That’s a trap that Beaverton’s Experience Theatre Project is determined to avoid in its new production of Christie’s 1952 murder mystery The Mousetrap, the longest continually running play in history. ETP’s Mousetrap will immerse the audience in the action, placing it in the middle of the production’s manor as Christie’s eclectic characters roam around and are brought to life by the show’s actors and actresses.
This production of The Mousetrap, as all others, centers on a group of strangers stranded in a boarding house in the midst of a snowstorm in the English countryside in 1952. The suspects include the newly married couple who run the house, a spinster with a curious background, an architect who seems better equipped to be a chef, a retired Army major, a strange man who claims his car has overturned in a drift, and a jurist who makes life miserable for everyone. Soon a policeman, traveling on skis, arrives to inform everyone that no one is safe, and that there is a strong likelihood a killer walks among them.
A typical theatrical production has one buy a ticket, find a seat, and watch a show performed by actors on a stage – a tradition that can sometimes seem a little passive, like sitting down in a theater to watch a movie, or watching some television on a couch at home. With its Mousetrap, which opens Friday, ETP is striving to further engage the audience by injecting it into the middle of the action, breaking down the fourth wall between audience and stage.
“I saw a show that impressed me, Masque of the Red Death, that was put on by Shaking the Tree Theatre Company in 2014,” Alisa Stewart, ETP’s founding artistic director, said during a rehearsal break a few days ago. “I had an immersive theater epiphany – that this is going to be the next big thing for theater.”
It wasn’t long before Stewart began calling up friends and others to begin work on breathing life into a new theater experience, one that had been largely lacking in the western area between Portland and Hillsboro, where Bag&Baggage, that city’s professional theater company, resides.
The now three-year old company produced its first summer kids camps in 2015 and presented its first mainstage show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the summer of 2016. It wrapped up a magical steampunk version of The Tempest, featuring a giant teapot as the production’s main set piece, last summer.
After Stewart sold her business Pub Quiz USA to boost fundraising efforts for ETP, she began to wonder when the organization would go back to more immersive pursuits in its performances. A murder mystery, she thought, would be perfect for winter, and pondering what would make sense in a small space, she came to the conclusion that a large room in a manor would be perfect.
“Christie is an amazing writer, this production is the longest-running show, and it’s very well-known, and we needed to get our name out there and have something familiar, so this was a no-brainer,” Stewart said. “The theatergoers will pass from the real world to fantasy when they enter the building we’re in.”
One of the big challenges in producing The Mousetrap is complying with the strict requirements that come with obtaining rights to the play: Samuel French, Inc., is a stickler in regard to changing stage directions. Every set for every production usually looks the same. Due to the immersive nature and audience placement of this adaptation, Stewart and company had to adjust where people came and went – but not at the cost of changing stage directions.
“When I brought the idea to them, they were a little worried I was changing things up. I just made the set circular,” she said. “We’ve been directing everyone by giving compass directions. It’s exciting because as an audience member, you can sit down and one actor could be doing something right next to you.”
This format of The Mousetrap also gives the actors and actresses an interesting perspective to consider.
“The audience is surrounding us, so if you scratch your bottom, five people will probably see,” said Carlyn Blount, who plays Mollie Ralston, one-half of the married couple who run the manor. “This whole thing is very well-cast, everyone is creative with the material, which is fascinating, and I hope the show itself excites people, and that it delivers an emotional truth that touches everyone who comes to see it.”
With a short rehearsal period the cast has been working tirelessly to set a high bar. To effectively stick the landing on British accents, they’ve been working with Mary McDonald-Lewis, a prominent Portland dialect coach and voice actor who does dialect coaching for stage, television and movie productions, and for big name actors like Patrick Stewart.
“Every actor thinks that they can do a British accent,” McDonald-Lewis told the cast in a short and cautionary tale as they gathered for notes after their runthrough of the first act one evening.
Other actresses, like Janice Moss, have spent their time gathering accent inspirations and demeanor from shows like Downton Abbey. “I play the jurist, Mrs. Boyle,” Moss said. “She’s like a boil: annoying and irritating. Nothing gets me in the mood to play her more than having a bad day, or talking to creditors.”
This will be Moss’s first foray into immersive theater, but she’s confident her experience with improv will help her go with the flow. And she hopes that some audience members, after engaging immersively with the performances, will feel inspired to go after some theatrical pursuits of their own.
“Working with the rest of the cast helps me to keep up my character — all of the other characters hate mine, but it’s always fun to play the creep,” she said.
Every character is so well-written and rounded, each with his or her own motives, that audiences will have an intriguing time peeling back layers and uncovering the truth as the play crawls along. There is no bad seat, or any bad angle. Conversations — and the murder — will happen only feet from their eyes.
“Imagine feeling the intensity of really talented actors performing immediately next you, feeling the tension of the moment right along with them,” said Stewart. “Couple that with Christie’s amazing mystery storytelling, and you’ve got a great recipe for a truly unique experience.”
Experience Theatre Project’s The Mousetrap opens Friday, Feb. 16, and continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 11 in the Cady Building,12604 S.W. Farmington Road in historic downtown Beaverton. Only 35 tickets are available per show. Ticket information here.