Sunset detects lots of humor, intrigue in Christie classic

Letitia (Tamara Martinsek, third from right) mistress of Little Paddocks estate, enjoys a libation along with houseguests and visitors, from left, Patrick (Evan Prier), Dora (Diane Kallas), Mrs. Swettenham (Michele McCauley), Edmund Swettenham (Tyler Peters) and Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen) in a scene from Sunset Playhouse’s “A Murder is Announced.”

Letitia (Tamara Martinsek, third from right) mistress of Little Paddocks estate, enjoys a libation along with houseguests and visitors, from left, Patrick (Evan Prier), Dora (Diane Kallas), Mrs. Swettenham (Michele McCauley), Edmund Swettenham (Tyler Peters) and Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen) in a scene from Sunset Playhouse’s “A Murder is Announced.”

 
 

 By MARILYN JOZWIK

Published Jan. 21, 2019

Agatha Christie died in 1976, long before murder-mystery writers like Grisham, Turow, Clark and Grafton gained fame.

Yet, her characters are driven to murder by the same motives as more contemporary figures – greed, jealousy, revenge and lust. Her stories continue to delight audiences.

In the case of Sunset Playhouse’s “A Murder is Announced” (published as a novel in 1950), Christie assembled a British household of characters that seem quite ordinary at first…until a notice in the local newspaper indicates that a murder will be committed that evening – Friday, Oct. 13 – at 6:30 p.m. Convinced that it is some kind of joke are all who are staying at the house, including estate owner Letitia (Tamara Martinsek), her niece and nephew Julia and Patrick (Dana Leone Strothenke and Evan Prier),  friend Dora (Diane Kallas),  young widow Phillippa (Stephanie Nilsen), as well as the maid Mitzi (Tanya Tranberg). Around 6:30, some curious neighbors (Michele McCawley and Tyler Peters) arrive.

Edmund (Tyler Peters) and Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen) are caught in a web of lies in Sunset Playhouse’s “A Murder is Announced.”

Edmund (Tyler Peters) and Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen) are caught in a web of lies in Sunset Playhouse’s “A Murder is Announced.”

At exactly 6:30, the lights suddenly go out, a man bursts through the door and shots are fired. Moments later, the lights return, a man lies dead on the floor and Letitia is bleeding from a wound to her ear.  Inspector Craddock (Cory Klein) is called in along with an assistant (James McClure) to try to sort out how the death occurred. Craddock gets a helping hand from Miss Marple (Annette Olson), but soon there is another death to contend with. The ditzy Dora instantly dies after taking a bite of a birthday cake Mitzi has made for her—a cake that the house guests had dubbed “Delicious Death.”

Through Craddock’s and Miss Marple’s questioning, we learn about the household and that virtually no one is who they say they are, a common Christie device. Like an onion, layers are peeled away to reveal identities and motive.

Director Carol Dolphin has a fine cast to work with, a cast that has a light touch with Christie’s humor and displays a high level of comfort with the scenarios. The Saturday night crowd was tuned in to the comedy and enjoyed many moments of laughter during the well-tuned show.

Christie’s show’s are talkies but Dolphin creates lots of movement among the characters that keeps the show from bogging down and the action moving at a good clip.

After a brief black-out at the Little Paddocks estate and shots are heard, a body is discovered. Pictured are, from left, Dora (Diane Kallas), Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen), Letitia (Tamara Martinsek, seated), Mrs. Swettenham (Michele McCauley), Edmund Swettenham (Tyler Peters), Mitzi (Tanya Tranberg), Miss Marple (Annette Olsen) and Patrick (Evan Prier).

After a brief black-out at the Little Paddocks estate and shots are heard, a body is discovered. Pictured are, from left, Dora (Diane Kallas), Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen), Letitia (Tamara Martinsek, seated), Mrs. Swettenham (Michele McCauley), Edmund Swettenham (Tyler Peters), Mitzi (Tanya Tranberg), Miss Marple (Annette Olsen) and Patrick (Evan Prier).

Martinsek’s Letitia has a ton of dialogue, which she delivers with a steady hand as the unflappable owner of Little Paddocks in Chipping Cleghorn, England. Her proper English woman is a far cry from the flamboyant Southern belle she played so wonderfully  in Sunset’s previous show, “Christmas Belles.”

Kallas has fun with the high-strung Dora, who can’t seem to keep anything straight. She has a deft touch with comedy, creating a memorable, delightful character.

Matthew Carr’s handsome set provides a fine backdrop for the characters in Agatha Christie’s “A Murder is Announced” at Sunset Playhouse. Pictured are: Letitia (Tamara Martinsek), Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen) and Patrick (Evan Prier).

Matthew Carr’s handsome set provides a fine backdrop for the characters in Agatha Christie’s “A Murder is Announced” at Sunset Playhouse. Pictured are: Letitia (Tamara Martinsek), Phillipa (Stephanie Nilsen) and Patrick (Evan Prier).

But the crowd’s favorite performance was that of Tanya Tranberg as the dramatic, foreign-born maid Mitzi, who frequently conjures up her hard-knocks past in her native land with demonstrative story-telling. Tranberg’s Mitzi huffs and puffs, striking all sorts of humorous indignant poses when she feels she is being blamed or misunderstood.  Tranberg’s thick accent only adds to the character’s appeal.

As Inspector Craddock, Klein is at the center of the investigation and handles it with the sense of a veteran who knows his way around an interrogation. Klein also knows his way around community theater stages, always providing a well-honed performance, engaging well with all the other characters. He has a nice way with an off-hand remark, such as when Miss Marple arrives: “My little snoop; you’re just in time.”

He and Olson also team up well. Olson, as the iconic Miss Marple who one character calls “quite a clever old busybody,” is totally at ease as she navigates the tricky investigation. I loved the scene with her and Dora as they enjoy tea and pastries with a casualness that made the audience feel like they were sharing a cup with them.

Strothenke is paired nicely with Prier as Patrick, especially early on when the two siblings tease each other. Strothenke is lively and purposeful as Julia, flouncing around in a new black dress to great effect.

Nilsen adds a classy portrayal of Phillipa who wears some equally classy outfits, thanks to costume designers Suzann Campbell and Sharon Sohner.

This cast handles the pivotal black-out murder scene effectively, with overlapping dialogue creating the sort of chaos Christie was aiming for.

Scenic Designer Matthew Carr has created a handsome set with rich mauve walls, expensive-looking chandelier and wall sconces and other props handled by props coordinator Beth Bland.

If you go

Who: Sunset Playhouse

What: “A Murder is Announced”

When: Through Feb. 2

Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove

Tickets/Info: 262-782-4430; www.sunsetplayhouse.com