Murder on the Orient Express at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach
Words by Nathan Jacques. Images courtesy of the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach.
The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach has hosted a variety of delightfully disturbing “whodunits” in recent seasons, most of which are helmed by director Jeffery Seneca, who boasts a strong propensity for both murder-mysteries and musicals. For this production, assistant director and props master Jessica Martinez supplements in executing his vision. The current entry to the theater’s storied saga of chilling thrillers is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a ticket for which is as prized as a shred of evidence in the hands of the legendary Hercule Poirot; it’s certainly no mystery why this train is sold out through the first week of June.
Right out of the station - I am impressed with the innovation theaters in the area have achieved with their sets in recent years. Spaces are wonderfully being utilized to their full potential, and this is no exception. LTVB continues to raise the bar and employs a turntable for this production, and akin to the Orient Express, it is operated at maximum efficiency. Kudos to stage managers Sarah Storminger and Gabriella Sharp for keeping this train running on-time. Locales shift with each rotation of the table, and many of the settings in the lineup are surprisingly intricate, brimming with a plethora of small but nonetheless fascinating features - functioning lamps (that even change color), interior windows that provide unique perspectives, you name it – all make for a layered experience for the passenger’s – I mean, audience member’s eye. Set designer Mike Hilton ensures that never once does the show devolve into the “disoriented express”. Was LTVB’s stage made for Orient Express? Without an ounce of hyperbole or shadow of a doubt, I think “yes”.
Not unlike a locomotive, Agatha Christie murder-mysteries have various moving parts. This is a large ensemble of characters, each from diverse backgrounds and corners of the world, crammed into the confining space of the elegant Orient Express. Poirot warns of an uneasy atmosphere when meeting his fellow passengers – even with a densely packed cast such as this, each actor and actress brings their “A” game to their role, and not even one felt out of place or lacking in passion or skill, even those not actually present on stage. I am convinced that actor Robin Chapman is the man Agatha envisioned when creating Hercule Poirot. If LTVB continues to produce top-shelf adaptations of the Poirot mysteries, I sincerely hope that Chapman returns to reprise his role as the fabled detective.
A prologue is provided through a short film at the top of the show, projected onto the set. Unfortunately, the set is populated with chairs and tables at this exact moment, and a clear view of the film is hindered as a result, but it is not terribly hard to follow what is transpiring.
Dialects are essential in a piece of this nature. Orient Express involves characters from many walks of life, from the common folk of the Midwestern USA to the upper class of Hungary and Russia. It is evident that an immense sum of time was spent honing these difficult dialects. Some accents are more polished than others, but it was never a challenge to understand the dialogue.
If you have managed to evade the novel and recent film adaptation, I highly encourage you to go in blind. This story is my personal favorite of Christie’s catalogue, and others who share this affinity will find it a fitting stage variation of the source material. According to the director’s note, Mr. Seneca also shares this sentiment, and it is evident through this labor of love. At the climax of the piece, I heard sniffling - some wiped their eyes. The moments demanding gravitas are given their rightful respect. This cast delivers every moment exquisitely and the production team has truly struck gold with their casting.
The ambience is indelible as the audience sits in anticipation of the Orient Express’ departure. The sound design throughout is remarkable, and though some cues seem abruptly cutoff, it never derails the experience. The ambient noises, when present, add a whole new level of life to the work. It makes one wonder what feats theatres in the area (particularly LTVB with their unique semi-thrust stage) could accomplish with a surround sound system. The costume work by David Prescott and wig work by Marilyn Abernathy is some of the best I’ve seen in recent years, and the lighting design by Mike Hilton is equally fantastic - I knew this was something extraordinary upon Poirot’s first entrance – and the sheer spectacle of it all is something words simply cannot do justice.
LTVB’s Orient Express is the proverbial well-oiled machine. Lovers of these classic stories can rest easy knowing that Christie’s tales are in loving hands if director Jeff Seneca continues to bring them to life. Though murder is probable on the Orient Express, finding yourself without a ticket to LTVB’s production would be a far worse fate.
Tickets to board the Orient Express are available online at https://ltvb.com/, but the train is booked up through June 4th as of the time of this review. LTVB does offer a waitlist for each performance, however.