Thursday night. Frank Thompson Hall. Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre. Sold out opening night of N.C. State University Theatre’s TheatreFest 2016. This year’s theme: “A Salute to the Queen of Mystery.” That queen is, of course, Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976). This year’s TheatreFest consists of three Christie-inspired productions: The Hollow (written by Christie in 1951, based on her 1946 novel); Something’s Afoot (a1976 musical spoof of Christie’s 1939 novel, And Then There Were None); and a sold-out special afternoon event at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 11th, and Saturday, June 25th, Tea with Agatha.
The festival got off to a killer start (bad pun, I know) with The Hollow, directed by Mia Self. The play takes place over four days in the garden room of Sir Henry Angkatell’s manor, The Hollow, located 18 miles outside of London. The year is 1956.
In essence, posh Sir Henry and his scatterbrained wife, Lucy, are having some family and friends over for a weekend respite, including hunting, fancy dinners, and a houseful of firearms. With us this weekend are Henry’s distant cousins (Henrietta, Midge, and Edward), the Christows (John and Gerda), and the servants (Gudgeon the butler and Doris the maid).
The Angkatell family is really into this whole cousin-marrying thing. Christie does a wonderful job of not wasting time trying to explain how everyone is related to everyone else. It’s really not important. What is important is that John Christow has a history of infidelity, which directly involves one of Henry’s cousins as well as the blonde bombshell film starlet next door. This infidelity and subsequent fallout has served nearly everyone in the house a solid motive for doing-in Mr. John Christow. So, of course, something is bound to happen to him.
After “something happens” to John, the whole house is in an uproar and two new characters, Inspector Colquhoun and Sergeant Penny of Scotland Yard, arrive at The Hollow to investigate. Commence who-done-it shenanigans.
The scenario has been seen many times before. It’s classic Christie, of course. Without it you wouldn’t have Gosford Park, Clue, Chinatown, or Se7en. But still, we do not know how this thing is going to end. Christie throws in every twist and turn possible as Act Two progresses, building to the inevitable climactic revealing of the true killer.
***END OF SPOILERS***
Cary, NC director and N.C. State University Theatre assistant director of acting and directing Mia Self has done an extraordinary job of building an ensemble cast that fits this material like a bloody glove. It isn’t Christie’s writing that makes this production so damned entertaining. It’s the performances of this terrific troupe of actors.
Jonathan King plays John Christow’s complexities with razor-sharp precision — I don’t know whether to kiss him or shoot him. Alison Lawrence is a dynamic and passionate Gerda Christow, and this performance is sure to be a career highlight.
Marisa Markoch is an intense but playful Henrietta. John C. McIlwee serves a charming and witty Sir Henry — it’s a delight every time he speaks.
JoAnne Dickinson’s Lady Angkatell is extremely funny and delightfully eccentric, though Dickinson’s British accent was inconsistent on Thursday night. Gus Allen gives Edward true vulnerability and honesty, whereas Katie Barrett simultaneously wins our hearts and breaks them with her relatable, pitch-perfect Midge.
Danny Norris delivers a spot-on performance of the oh-so-British butler Gudgeon, with impeccable timing and well-suited physicality. His clown partner, Blair Downs as Doris, maid-in-training, is delightfully funny, with a catalogue of comedic faces.
Lynda Clark expertly blends a cocktail of fragility, sultriness, and rage in the form of glamorous Veronica Craye. Justin Brent Johnson makes his Inspector Colquhoun likeable and realistic, unlike the bombastic pipe-smoking detectives through which we must often suffer. His clown partner, Kyle Bullins as Detective Sergeant Penny, is energetic and genial, mining the subtext for dozens of comedic moments that could have gone undetected.
Almost as important as this superb ensemble cast is the technical design of the production. The scenic, costume, and hair design of The Hollow shows John McIlwee at his very best. The set is detailed, immersive, and creative. His highly specific palette blends set and costumes to create a perfect environment in which to play. The use of vivid colors in Veronica Craye’s costumes is especially striking.
A large number of interior light fixtures were put to expert use by Joshua Reaves, giving a true feel of source lighting within the garden room. Lightning, power flickering, and shifts in daylight were especially effective.
Rachel Klem’s complex sound design does not go unnoticed. For a non-musical, there are an enormous number of sound cues in this piece; and great attention to detail has been given to each, especially in regard to mixing.
The production’s only flaw, and it is a minor one, is its length. A large portion of the first act could use a boost in pacing. With a nearly three-hour running time, every minute counts. And frankly, we’re talking about Agatha Christie. We really just want the guy to get shot, so we can start having fun.
A killer ensemble and beautiful design make this show a must-see for all lovers of suspense storytelling.
SECOND OPINION: June 1st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/theatrefest-2016-a-salute-to-the-queen-of-mystery/Event?oid=5032368.
N.C. State University Theatre presents THE HOLLOW, as part of TheatreFest 2016: A Salute to the Queen of Mystery, at 7:30 p.m. June 3 and 4, 2 p.m. June 5, 7:30 p.m. June 9-11, 2 p.m. June 12, 7:30 p.m. June 16-18, 2 p.m. June 19, 7:30 p.m. June 23-25, and 2 p.m. June 26 in the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 E. Dunn Ave., Raleigh NC 27607, on the NCSU campus.
TICKETS: $18 ($6 NSCU students, $14 students and $16 $16 seniors 60+ and NSCU faculty and staff).
BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=HOLL.
SHOW/THEATREFEST 2016: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/whats-on-stage/theatrefest-2016/.
PRESENTER: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/ncstateuniversitytheatre, and https://twitter.com/ncsutheatre.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 17th, performance.
The Hollow (1946 detective novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hollow (Wikipedia).
The Hollow (1951 mystery/thriller): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1385/hollow-the (Samuel French, Inc.) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hollow_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
Dame Agatha Christie (Engish novelist and playwright, 1890-1976): http://uk.agathachristie.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/3916 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agatha_Christie (Wikipedia).
Mia Self (Cary, NC director and assistant director of acting and directing at N.C. State University Theatre): https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/our-team/ (N.C. State University Theatre bio) and https://www.facebook.com/mia.self.31 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Raleigh native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches high school writing and literature. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.