Review: Hercule Poirot Unravels Murder Scheme Aboard Milwaukee Rep’s Orient Express

Agatha Christie mystery fans will want to climb aboard Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Murder On the Orient Express, which opened last weekend in the largest of the Rep’s three stages. Orient Express closes the theater’s 2021-22 season.

The play begins on a dark stage. Writer Agatha Christie’s most famous sleuth, Belgian-born Hercule Poirot, walks into the limelight to address the audience. In a somber, measured fashion, he tells the audience what is ahead. He promises an evening filled with suspicion, trickery, romance and revenge.

What Poirot neglects to reveal is that Murder On the Orient Express originally was intended to be part of the Milwaukee Rep’s 2020 season. Temporarily “derailed” by the pandemic, Orient Express has had a very long wait before leaving the station.

Almost magically, the dark opening scene is transformed into a luxurious hotel in exotic Istanbul, circa 1934. Wearing his trademark derby, the portly Poirot (played by Steven Rattazzi) walks into the dining room. Poirot is spotted at a table by an old friend, Monsieur Bout (played by Chicago actor Gregory Linington). Bout is planning to take the same route. As one of the train company’s executives, Bout promises a journey that will be “poetry on wheels.”

Park Krausen, Diana Coates, Steven Rattazzi, Barbara Robertson and Jonathan Wainwright. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Of course, with witty Agatha Christie as chief engineer, there’s sure to be foul play before the train reaches its final destination. Over the years, Orient Express, one of Christie’s most famous novels, has had several filmed versions and even some made-for-TV films. It was up to famed playwright Ken Ludwig to bring his version of Orient Express to the stage. Ludwig, perhaps best known for the Tony Award-winning stage comedy, Lend Me a Tenor, has had numerous hits on both sides of the Atlantic. His popular stage version of Orient Express opened in 2017, and has been riding the rails ever since.

To perhaps the dismay of some Agatha Christie purists, Ludwig eliminates some characters from the novel, while increasing the comedy. Of course, murder in itself is nothing to laugh about. But the laughs segue nicely into the dialogue, and they bring a lightness into this otherwise-serious enterprise.

Train Passengers Hail from Around the World

Under the capable direction of Annika Boras, this Orient Express chugs right along at just the right speed. It takes a while before audiences get to know the characters (and their alibis, once the murder is discovered). This particular trip attracts various passengers from all over the world. A cacophony of accents nearly overwhelms the dialog, although the excellent cast does an incredible job of making every word understandable. The passenger list includes: Mary Denbenham, a young Englishwoman who is in love with a Scottish Colonel; Helen Hubbard, a loud-mouthed American from Minnesota; Countess Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat who is escorted by her paid assistant – a mousy, demure Swede named Greta. There’s also Samuel Ratchett, a New York businessman with a dark past, and his secretary, Hector McQueen. Keeping everyone comfortable aboard the train is Michel, the definitive train conductor.  

Many members of the show’s cast will be familiar to Chicago audiences, as they are frequently seen in various productions around the city. Emjoy Gavino, who grew up in Milwaukee and Chicago, plays Mary, the Englishwoman. Park Krausen plays the Swedish Greta, and Will Mobley appears as Hector, the secretary. Helen, the loud-mouthed Minnesotan, is played by Gail Rastorfer, and Michel the conductor is played by Adam Rose. Finally, the Hungarian Countess Andrenyi is played by Diana Coates.

Each character is sumptuously dressed in period attire by Chicago costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg, and the scenes are warmly lit in a nostalgic glow by Noele Stollmack. Sound designer Andre J. Pluess sets the mood with eerie train whistles, rumbling train engines and, occasionally, the sound of screeching brakes. Incidental music before and after the show further allows the audience to escape into the 1930s.

Steven Rattazzi. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Although all of the characters have ample time to shine, it is the production’s monstrous set that gets a great deal of attention. Milwaukee Rep is the only company with enough resources to install a double revolve in its main theater. Luciana Stecconi’s set fully revolves to display a lavishly appointed dining car on one side, and a cutaway of several berths (and the hallway) on the other. One revolution also displays the train’s luxe exterior.

At times, the twin revolves work in tandem with each other, giving a cinematic effect that those who’ve seen the musical Hamilton will recognize. Boras, as director, uses this effect to its fullest, whether a scene requires just a romantic couple or the entire contingent aboard the train. 

As for the plot itself, Orient Express leaves a handful of clues that only the most adept listeners (and observers) will catch. The highly stylized acting throughout doesn’t make the audience care whether this character vs. that character is in on the murder. The cast creates characters who are memorable, if not engaging. A cat fight between aristocrats (Princess Dragomiroff and Countess Andrenyi) is cleverly staged, as is the interrupted romance scenes between Colonel Arbuthnot (Milwaukee’s Jonathan Wainwright) and Mary (Emjoy Gavino). Although each character displays his/her odd quirks, the oddest character is undoubtedly Park Krausen as the demure, religious and oft-frightened Greta.

Choreographed set changes

Some of the play’s early set changes are so dazzling that they also deserve mention. They are as well-timed as a Swiss watch. Stagehands, dressed as waiters, seem to come out of nowhere. They carry wooden chairs or bistro-sized tables around the set in seemingly chaotic glee. (One false move and a waiter could find himself/herself limping towards the exit.) Taken together, the movements express a ballet-like quality, so that every prop seems to arrive (or disappear) in a heartbeat. The play’s choreographer, Jacqueline Burnett, is a company member at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Back on the train, the murder case is eventually solved (by Hercule Poirot). But, in an interesting twist, Poirot is then faced with a dilemma that challenges his values over right vs. wrong. It is interesting to see Poirot weighing his options, and Rattazzi turns over this puzzle in his mind brilliantly. 

Finally, Poirot returns to a near-empty stage to tell how the various characters’ stories have ended. It is a fitting end to a production that is both polished and entertaining from start to finish.

Murder On the Orient Express continues at Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse through July 1. Running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one intermission. The theater is located at 108 E. Wells St. For more information, visit milwaukeerep.com, or call 414-224-9490. Mask-wearing indoors is strongly advised.

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. She has served on the organization’s executive committee and has held a number of committee chairmanships. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites.

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Anne Siegel