Special to The Ellsworth American
LAMOINE — After a three-year hiatus, Lamoine Community Arts has returned to the Grange stage with its annual fall play.
And, I am thrilled to report, its performance of Peter Gordon’s Agatha Christie spoof, “Murdered to Death,” is well worth the wait.
Traditionally LCA does just about everything right. Their eclectic choice of plays — from Anton Chekov to Neil Simon — their casting choices; their production values; even the snacks they offer at intermission are simply wonderful.
Although they chose “Murdered to Death” three years ago, just before the pandemic shut down all the theaters in the whole wide world, it seems that some sort of prescience was at play here. It is as if they knew that three years hence, we’d all be craving an escape from the fraught times of the future, with some really good laughs in the close company of our friends and neighbors.
The LCA escape route starts the moment one enters the Grange Hall and is transported to an elegant country manse in the pre-World War II England.
One might have expected and forgiven a certain lowering of the set production standards after three lean years in the LCA budget-raising department. But no, the drawing room we are ushered into is positively sumptuous. Well, actually, the audience is seated behind a large fireplace giving us a fine log’s-point-of-view vantage point from which to witness the murderous shenanigans. The room we look into is decorated with hand-stenciled, burgundy and gold-flocked wallpaper, heavy, richly upholstered furniture, a Tiffany table lamp, a Persian carpet and the sort of hodgepodge of antiques and bric-a-brac — including a working Victrola — one might expect to find in, well, an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
Hats off here to set designer Kahlan Hanle and her construction crew Daniel Clement and Theo Dumas. Dumas also did a fine job with the lighting design which replicates the low wattage illumination of the 1930s and the occasional flash of lightning.
Enter the estate’s elderly owner Mildred Bagshot — an elegantly imposing Robin Veysey — and her pretty niece Dorothy, (an engaging Kahlan Hanle). The two are nervously awaiting the arrival of their dinner guests. Mildred makes it clear it has been some time since she has entertained, and she is anxious that everything go smoothly.
That this is a futile hope becomes obvious when Bunting, the drunken, surly butler appears, and things start to go terribly wrong. Aiden Pasha as Bunting is a big stage presence, and he uses every bit of his stature and sometimes a large axe, to project menace.
Things progress in typical Christie-esque fashion as the various characters arrive.
Mildred’s dear old friend Colonel Charles Craddock (a perfectly pompous Fred Stocking) and his pill of wife Margaret (bitterly and convincingly played by Hedy Ardito); the braying and blowsy former debutante Elizabeth Hartley-Trumpington (a terrific Jaimie Paige) and her French artist friend Pierre Marceau. Although Theo Dumas’s French accent here owes more to Pepe Le Pew than Alain Delon, it all works wonderfully well and this is arguably Dumas’s best stage role to date.
Now that all the potential victims and killers have been assembled, we know for certain that murder is afoot, when an uninvited neighbor, a certain Miss Joan Maple arrives at the door in her dowdy tweeds.
I understand that Di Klausmeyer has not acted on stage since her high school days, some 30 years past. Well, that is a crime of its own. With her terrific timing, facial expressions body language, projection, and spot on British accent, Klausmeyer is a natural.
Foreshadowed by dark secrets, revealed during copious amounts of sherry drinking, the murder most foul is preceded by adulterous affairs; art forgery; a secret will, and periodic ominous thunderclaps. Then, the fun begins in earnest.
We are a good half hour into the show at this point and having a great time with the quirky cast of characters and clever dialogue, when, on the heels of the heinous crime, into the murderous mix stumbles the appropriately named Inspector Pratt (Joe Marshall) and his beleaguered side-kick Constable Tompkins (Jarod Smith.)
As admirable as the whole cast is in their ability to remember lines, cues, action and accents, Joe Marshall is an absolute phenom as this incompetent nincompoop, who speaks only in malaprops, oxymorons and spoonerisms. It’s hard enough to memorize well known phrases, but to memorize them backwards, sideways and upside down is quite the feat.
As the “thick plottens” an enraged and befuddled Pratt rails against the “red haddocks” complicating his investigation but vows to keep a cool, clear, empty head whilst solving the mystery. A promise he is, except for the empty-headedness, hilariously unable to fulfill.
As his assistant, Tompkins, Smith’s incredulous facial expressions and defeated body language, are a hoot, although he needs to sharpen his enunciation a bit, as he’s got some zingers of his own to deliver.
With a few nitpicks, Stephanie Urquhart’s costumes are excellent. The men’s three-piece suits, Dorothy’s frocks and Miss Maples’ drab outfit and hat are perfection, but the knitting bag she totes about looks like it came from last year’s L.L. Bean catalog rather than Fortnum & Mason.
Although Miss Trumpington-Smith reveals herself to be a cheap imitation of a society gal rather than the real deal, I’m not sure that her ill-fitting second-act outfit is supposed to be such a dead giveaway.
Daniel Clement’s direction is generally lively and fun, using every bit of the not so “little” enhanced stage. There are, however, a few awkward pauses, such as when the conversation comes to a complete standstill whenever the doorbell rings (which is often and long lasting.) I believe these are intentional “pregnant” pauses, which is a valid choice, but it comes across as dead air.
But that, and a corpse or two are the only dead things about this delightful show.
It must also be said that the LCA cast and crew are not the only ones who deserve credit for the success of these performances. Opening weekend, the Lamoine community at large once again demonstrated its whole-hearted support of their theater, by filling the seats with their enthusiastic presence and filling the hall with laughter and applause. Bravo!
“Murdered to Death” will be performed again at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 4-5 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6. Tickets cost $15 per person. For reservations, call 207-667-6564 or got to lamoinearts.org. Mask-wearing is encouraged. The site also a good place to donate to this intrepid little theater company, knowing that your contribution will be well spent.