Before she was known for her iconic play The Mousetrap, the mystery of her real-life disappearance, or for being the best-selling fiction writer of all time (having sold over two billion copies of her various novels, plays, and short stories), Agatha Christie wrote her first play, Black Coffee, which was produced in 1930.
Set in a country house library in between-the-wars England, a physicist dies after consuming a poisoned beverage. Enter Hercule Poirot to solve the mystery, catch the perpetrator, and illuminate the other guests as to how it was done. Unsurprisingly, for those who know Christie’s work well, the play manages to confound her most devoted fans while simultaneously entertaining Christie neophytes.
Sapulpa Community Theatre Director Chuck Osuna admits that it’s a “challenge to figure out who the murderer is,” but shares that there are small clues directing the audience to the murderer from its beginning.
The play embodies some of the most iconic elements of many of Christie’s classics—a close group of people, some family, some friends, some servants, find themselves sequestered in a remote country home where one of them ends up dead, usually someone over whom no one (sincerely) grieves. There’s the staid English butler, the motley group of likely suspicious suspects, a plethora of motives for murder, and a seemingly impossible way of administering the poison that kills the victim. And the confident, capable detective who will sort it all out for us and reveal the answers in a pleasingly apropos manner. (Not one character pronounces his name correctly, but each in a different way, in an endearingly predictable Christiesque way.)
SCT’s version is just the thing for some much-needed distraction from current events. In this time of uncertainty, it’s comforting to spend time with familiar friends like Poirot, Hastings, and Japp and for the biggest uncertainty to be who killed a cranky old man.
But after all, this is a murder mystery, and the audience wants to be surprised and awed. That’s what we know to expect from a Christie production. The delightful thing about this production is that we know we are watching a murder mystery and that our suspects are gathered right in front of us, yet we are hoodwinked anyway and clueless as to whodunnit.
Characters include classic archetypes such as the curmudgeonly patriarch, the chatty aunt, the Modern Millie niece, the disgruntled son, his nervous, Italian wife, the suspicious foreign doctor with mysterious ties to the wife, and the kowtowed secretary.
Actor Andrew Smith’s Hercule Poirot, Christie’s beloved and iconic Belgian detective, ably embodies all the classic Poirot quirks. He had “luxurious mustaches, an insistence on order and meticulous attention to detail. He also manages to be, to great comic effect, oblivious to his foreignness.
On playing a character who has become a version of the ideal detective, Smith said he has “big shoes to fill” and “[hopes he] did the character and his predecessors who have played him justice.” David Suchet would have been proud!
Ibrahim Buyckes’s Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s faithful sidekick, managed to, as usual, bark up the wrong proverbial trees with silly assumptions and accusations of every suspect interviewed. He also has an eye for the ladies which doesn’t bode well for him focusing on the crime. Buycke’s portrayal of Hasting was dynamic; we hope he comes back for future SCT productions.
One of the stars of the production was Rachel Lovy, a 16-year-old who effortlessly plays the irreverent, charming niece. Not only did she look and sound the part flawlessly, she made the audience genuinely guffaw several times. Make sure you pay attention to her line about her red lipstick.
The rest of the cast was also compelling. Caleb Vaughn’s Dr. Carelli was sauve and menacing, while also managing to provide comedy through his body language and facial expressions. The muddled and incessantly-chatting Aunt Caroline, played by Shirley Gilmore, is a treat.
And Merri Beth Purdin, who plays the victim’s daughter-in-law Lucia is quite a talented young actress. Her role had the most dramatic onus and she played it very well.
Osuna choreographs all the blocking himself—an intricate job when the audience is watching, hoping to see who administers the poison. “There is an art to it; it’s fun,” he says. He has directed three Christie plays in the last three years for SCT. He says from start to finish it takes about eight months to complete a production. The key is to surprise both the regulars and the newcomers.
Performances are September 11-13th and 18-20th. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. matinees on Sundays. The two-and-a-half-hour long play has three acts and two ten-minute intermissions.
Please note that they will be requiring masks and limiting seating to half capacity (40 seats) for social distancing and requiring masks. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Reserve by calling 918-227-2169 (leave a message) or buy your tickets online at sapulpatheatre.org