Wit, One-Liners, and Mystery Make for a Pretty Killer Play

by Holly Griffith

Arizona Rose Theatre’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile has all the staples of a good British detective story: colorful suspects, wry wit, and most importantly, a puzzle of motives. The story takes place aboard a cruise on the Nile River. A love triangle between the wealthy Kay Ridgeway (Diana Ouradnik), her new husband Simon Mostyn (John Reimann), and his ex-lover Jacqueline de Severac (Michele Holland) motivates most of the action. Simon and Kay are on their honeymoon, and the jealous Jacqueline has followed them, appearing unexpectedly to ruin their romance. When Kay is murdered in her bed one night, all fingers are pointed at Jacqueline. Kay’s uncle, Canon Ambrose Pennefather (Michael Shipione) serves as the detective, and he discovers that things are not as they seem.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

First-time director Ron Kari achieves that delicate balance required of a murder mystery—planting clues subtly enough that we can’t quite put them together immediately, but clearly enough that we remember them when all is revealed. No spoilers, but this cast does a great job of throwing us off the scent. Stephanie Howell’s earnest innocence as Christine and Ouradnik’s measured elegance as Kay are particularly solid performances. Holland as Jackie and Leah Kari as Miss ffoliot-ffolkes [spelled correctly!] add some juice to the production—both actors bring the villainy without being too over-the-top. With its twists and turns and witty one-liners, this play is just plain fun.

At times, a sharper pace would have helped the production a great deal. While the mystery plot is negotiated masterfully, a few comic moments fall flat, and some of the suspense is squeezed out by a tempered pace. Speed would achieve two major things for this story. First, it would let some of the jokes really smack us in the face—in a good way. Second, it would cause the audience to sit on the edge of their chairs and follow the action with more energy. If an audience is asked to keep up, rather than merely follow along, the whole room is infused with excitement.

A word of praise for costumer Leah Rosthenhausler. The costumes are multitudinous — many characters have multiple outfits, complete with hats and accessories. Garments are period-appropriate without looking dusty, extremely well fitting, flattering, and expensive-looking. The actors all looked comfortable and confident. The set by Ruben Rosthenhausler, Luke Howell, and Mike Howell is functional and richly dressed. However, I found the moving video of the exterior landscape somewhat distracting. While realistic, it didn’t quite fit, especially in the world of 1940’s Egypt. The creativity is commendable, but I’m not sure that the idea worked in this instance.

I’d like to address the question of racial stereotype in this production. Agatha Christie wrote the first version of this story in 1937 and adapted it for the stage in 1944. Christie’s depiction of Egyptians is not particularly progressive, even for its time. She writes the two Egyptian bead merchants as pushy and money-hungry, a nuisance for the proper English passengers trying to board their riverboat. This depiction alone is problematic, but I was disappointed to see two white actors cast in the roles. Their over-the-top accents and wacky personalities bordered on minstrelsy. I was relieved to see that they didn’t figure prominently in the rest of the play, but I wondered if those characters could have been cut altogether. They didn’t add much to the plot or even to the atmosphere, and instead made me cringe. The other Egyptian character, a steward aboard the boat, is also played by a white actor. While the steward character isn’t nearly as problematic, I wish Arizona Rose had found an actor of Arab or North African heritage to play the role.  The actor did a fine job, but it felt like a missed opportunity to hire an actor of color.

This whole scenario begs the question—how do companies deal with playwrights whose prejudices reflect their time? Do we refuse to produce their works? Do we edit their works to reflect more progressive values? Do we produce them fully to remind our audiences that these ugly prejudices are a real part of our history? Shakespeare is racist too, remember. How do we deal? I don’t have an answer, and if I did, it would probably change from production to production, story to story, but I think the most important things are discussions within the company, among the cast and creative team, and with audiences—and an earnest attempt to get it right.

While I hope for more sensitivity regarding depictions of race in the future, I enjoyed this production, and I appreciate Arizona Rose Theatre’s mission to produce works that are positive and accessible. The company did a fine job of staging a murder mystery, and I’m looking forward to returning to see other productions.

Murder on the Nile runs through June 16th at Arizona Rose Theatre located in the Tucson Mall on the lower level near Macy’s. Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 888-0509 or visiting www.arizonarosetheatre.com.