Last weekend, N.C. State University Theatre opened TheatreFEST 2019 with Agatha Christie’s Go Back for Murder, a very different sort of “whodunit” murder mystery, directed by Mia Self. The play is based on Christie’s 1942 Hercule Poirot mystery Five Little Pigs; in the play, Poirot (the novel’s Belgian detective) has been replaced by a solicitor in an English law firm, but the plot twists-and-turns are no less enthralling.
The philandering artist father of Carla Le Marchant (Emily Yates) was poisoned 16 years ago; Caroline Crale, Carla’s mother, was convicted of the crime and subsequently died in prison. Now that Carla is “of age,” she has been given a letter in which her mother asserts her innocence.
Currently living in Canada and engaged to boorish Texas cattle-rancher Jeff Rogers (Michael Parker), Carla has returned to England to seek the assistance of attorney Justin Fogg (Gus Allen) in “rounding up the usual suspects” in order to reexamine the evidence.
In the first act, Carla meets the five people who were present on the day in question. In the second act, the action repeatedly moves from present to past and back again as we hear testimonies and witness reenactments of events. OK: Who done it? Let’s just say that it was not one of my first two suspects who confessed. Let’s also say that 1960s TV lawyer Perry Mason would have been proud of the process as well as of the end-game that prompts the confession!
A very earnest Emily Yates plays both Carla in the present and Caroline in the past. With subtle differences between the two, Yates shows both the daughter’s determination and the mother’s desperation.
Gus Allen plays a very genteel and thorough Justin Fogg, who initially declines to assist Carla and subsequently relents and sets the reenactment in motion. Is there an infatuation beneath the surface? Also: prepare to laugh as Allen’s Fogg disdainfully repeats a phrase spoken by Carla’s fiancé.
Justin Brent Johnson is delightfully deadpan as Mr. Turnbull, Fogg’s butler. Johnson’s delivery prompts laughs from lines which, spoken in any other fashion, simply would not be funny. (Fans of The Addams Family might find themselves wondering if Johnson is channeling their butler Lurch.) Johnson also plays Mr. Meredith Blake.
Speaking of deadpan, in act one, Michael Parker skillfully creates the totally self-unaware (and unsympathetic) fiancé Jeff Rogers. In the second act, Parker returns as Amyas Crale, Carla’s soon-to-be-deceased father. While each of these characters could not possibly be more full-of-himself, Parker’s choices of expression, posture, and body-language ensure that the two are quite different.
Two brothers were present on that day-in-the-past — Philip (Jonathan King) and Meredith Blake (Johnson). These two seasoned actors infuse just enough “sibling-chemistry” to make things interesting as they are recruited to testify and subsequently do.
Laura J. Parker plays Elsa, Amyas Crale’s mistress, whose portrait Amyas had been painting on the day of the murder. In the present day, she is jaded and world-weary. In the past, she is bubbly-in-love with Amyas and ambitiously convinced that she will soon be his new wife. Parker gives the character an air of haughtiness in the past that she will “wear with a difference” in the present.
Teal Lepley had the most difficult job of all, but pulled it off with aplomb. She plays Angela Warren, Caroline’s younger half-sister; and the difference between her character’s ages in the two acts is the most pronounced. Infusing the younger self with a degree of youthful impulsiveness (seasoned with a dash of bratty-ness), Lepley is easily convincing.
Loveably cute, Karen Morgan Williams is a treat as Miss Williams, Angela’s governess. Every household should include a Miss Williams.
The magic of the set and its multiple changes is in the hands of scenic designer Jayme Mellema along with co-projection designers Bree Dockery and Joshua Reeves. It really must be experienced to be fully appreciated, but here goes: Projections on fragmented screens above the stage denote the various locations as the action moves through five different locations in the first act and a sixth in Act Two.
In act one’s five scenes, actors move furniture into five separate areas, sequentially defined by lighting designer Chrissie Munich. As these onstage shifts occur, the projections on the screens above them change from one set to another. This change was so subtle that it produced in me a “wait-a-minute” effect that prompted me (finally) to focus on the screens during the fourth shift. Wow! A “doll-house sized” model of the house that was the scene-of-the-crime is a nice addition in an upstage-center position.
As costume, hair, and makeup designer, Adrienne McKenzie has supplied character-specific trappings for 11 individuals in two different time periods.
Fans of who-done-it mysteries will definitely enjoy this fresh take on the genre. While the first act of this script could easily have become nothing more than overly long exposition, director Mia Self and the actors inject enough life, spice, and activity to keep it interesting. The choice to rotate the onstage location of the various scenes adds to the visual variety, while emphasizing that these scenes are “pieces” of the bigger “puzzle” that will be “put together” as a whole in the second act, a feeling that is augmented by the multiplicity of the projections on the overhead screens.
While the first act required a bit of effort on my part to remain engaged, I found the second act, definitely, to be more interesting; and I felt the pace quicken and become enjoyably “frenzied” as we approached the climax.
Go Back for Murder at NCSU is nice way to spend a summer’s evening.
SECOND OPINION: May 19th Raleigh, NC Technician (NCSU student newspaper) preview by Austin Dunlow: http://www.technicianonline.com/arts_entertainment/article_bf06fe16-7aa1-11e9-9a97-fb5b323ee2b1.html.
N.C. State University Theatre presents Agatha Christie’s GO BACK FOR MURDER at 7:30 p.m. June 6 and 7, 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 8, 2 p.m. June 9, 7:30 p.m. June 14 and 15, and 2 p.m. June 16 in the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 E. Dunn Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607, on the NCSU campus, presented as part of TheatreFEST 2019.
TICKETS: $25.99 ($6 NCSU students, $15 other students, $23.99 NCSU faculty and staff and seniors 60+), except $15 on Community Night (Thursday, June 6th).
BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or https://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=BACK.
Go Back for Murder (1960 play): https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1349/go-back-for-murder (Samuel French, Inc.), https://www.agathachristie.com/stories/go-back-for-murder-play (AgathaChristie.com), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Little_Pigs#1960_play (Wikipedia).
Agatha Christie (English crime novelist and playwright, 1890-1976): http://www.agathachristie.com/ (official website), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Agatha-Christie (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/agatha-christie-3916 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002005/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agatha_Christie (Wikipedia).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.