Kansas City Actors Theatre Delivers Wit, Style and Nihilism in Agatha Christie Classic

Kansas City Actors Theatre has a hit on its hands, judging by the SRO audience at a recent Sunday matinee.

And deservedly so. Director John Rensenhouse, a gifted cast and a skilled design team bring the Agatha Christie classic “And Then There Were None” to life with an elegant sense of style. The effect is to seduce the viewer with glossy visuals and poised performances as a way of distracting us from the permeating grimness of Christie’s tale — until the final moments when the perpertrator of the dark mystery is revealed.

“And Then There Were None” was reputedly Christie’s most popular novel and was published under various titles from 1939 on. Later she wrote it for the stage and it has been adapted repeatedly for film, television and radio. Chances are, many of the theatergoers drawn to the KCAT production are familiar with the story. Even so, there will be no spoilers in this review.

I can report that I, never having read the novel and carrying only dim memories a movie version, was utterly taken in by this production. The mystery was compelling enough to keep me engaged through a traditional well-made play in three acts.

You can credit the actors for that. We tend to think of Agatha Christie titles as standard fodder for community playhouses, but this cast is a class act. To see this show performed by committed actors who clearly respect the material counts as a minor revelation.

The story is essentially a pressure-cooker melodrama as a group of characters find themselves threatened by an unseen killer in an isolated island mansion off the coast of Devon, England. The unseen host is a mysterious personage who makes himself known only by a phonograph record, in which he essentially indicts each character for crimes in his or her past.

Those present include Rogers (Greg Butell), the butler, and his wife Mrs. Rogers (Bonnie Griffin), the cook. The guests are Vera Claythorne (Ellen Kirk), a secretary; Philip Lombard (Matt Schwader), a former military man; Anthony Marston (Kyle Dyck) a rich playboy; General MacKenzie (Robert Gibby Brand), a retired officer; Emily Brent (Manon Halliburton), a religious spinster; William Blore (Matt Rapport), a police detective; Dr. Armstrong (Peter Zazzali), a physician; and Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Victor Raider-Wexler), a judge.

Gradually the characters are picked off by various means. A gun, a knife, an axe and cyanide are among the tools wielded by the unknown killer. Some deaths occur onstage, others off.

The performances are uniformly strong. Raider-Wexler is at his scenery-chewing best. Rapport, one of our best character actors, makes the most of Blore’s bombast; Schwader projects a persuasive James-Bond-ish suavity; Kirk is compelling as a sort of insecure femme fatale; Halliburton delivers a detailed, memorable performance as the prim Emily Brent; Brand is marvelous as the fatalistic Gen. MacKenzie; Dyck is all smooth moves and glib rejoinders as Marston. Butell and Griffin are effective as the servants And Zazzali brings an appropriately sober tone to Dr. Armstrong.

Filling a small, utilitarian role in two brief appearances is Scott Cordes as Narcotti, the boatman.

The action takes place in the living room of a house built into a cliffside. Scenic designer Mark Exline delivers a handsome piece of work, creating a sense of what might be called elegant isolation; upstage a row of windows frame vivid projections of a glimmering sea as well as actors in silhouette as characters come and go. Sarah Oliver’s sumptuous costumes are almost a show unto themselves. And Shane Rowse’s lighting establishes a unique tone in each act.

You could call this “light entertainment,” except that Christie’s inexorable plot takes no prisoners. Indeed, the show compels us to examine the nature of morality and what happens when we lose all sense of ethics. Rensenhouse and company have invested the material with undeniable artistry. All in all, it’s a remarkable show.

“And Then There Were None” runs through Aug. 27 at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or visit kcactors.org.

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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