Review: And Then There Were None - A Bit of Mass Murder the Whole Family Can Enjoy

Maybe it's a sign of the times that a play about a serial killer methodically exterminating a house full of weekend guests serves as quality family entertainment these days. The Dreamhouse Ensemble's production of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (appearing weekends through August 27th) brings a lighthearted rendition of this whodunit to the small Hollywood theater The Space. Judging by the number of parents and children in the audience, Christie's work has been deemed tame enough to bring the kids to. Never mind the poisonings, axes in the head, and knives in the back.

Lorrianne Hill as Vera Claythorn, Carl Johnson as General MacKenzie.

Part of the all-ages appeal might come from the absence of much actual violence occuring on stage, or maybe the story's old-fashioned charms (the telegram invitations each guest receives calling them to the mysterious island, and their homicidal host's use of a 'gramaphone' to deliver the guests' indictments) make the bloodshed oddly innocent by today's standards. Whatever it is, the Dreamhouse Ensemble's lighthearted production of Christie's classic might be innocuous enough to please even the puritanical Emily Brent.

That's not to say the Ensemble has removed much of the original's menacing and sometimes grisly content. This production of And Then There Were None is still Christie puzzle-making at its purest. Ten strangers show up at the solitary beach house on Soldier Island (the name's been updated from 'Indian Island' out of political correctness), only to find that each has been invited there for different reasons, and their host or hosts can't be found. A recording broadcast over the speakers announces that each has committed a terrible crime and will receive his or her due punishment shortly. Within minutes of the announcement one of the guests falls to the ground, poisoned by cyanide, and quickly the other guests start meeting their own poetic ends. If the title can be trusted, the audience knows where the story is heading.

Dr. Armstrong (Bill Garnett) and General MacKenzie react to accusations.

In a Christie story like this, the author's and the audience's focus remain on the carefully-timed revelations of the plot itself, not any broader theme or nuance of character. The downside of this riddle-telling is that it tends to leave the characters serving more as plot devices than full-blooded people.

The best performances in this production come from actors who seem to understand the one-dimensional nature of their characters and turn these limits into strengths. Steve London's Judge Wargrave asserts a calm influence on the rowdy ensemble from the moment he enters the stage, playing up his character's coolly authoritative personality and acting like we would expect a judge to act .

Alex Sol (the production's director who stood in for Stuart Barron), portrays police officer William Blore with a ferocious tough guy energy that borders on caricature, but his straight-talk also creates one of the most convincing performances in the show.

Judge Wargrave (London) confronts the reckless Anthony Marston (Cannon).

Less successful are a few of the other performers--especially Jennifer Sindell's line-garbling Mrs. Rogers and Christopher Cannon's awkwardly present-day portrayal of Anthony Marston--who mistake speaking loudly with expressing emotion.

In a similar way, though Jean-Phillipe Bianchi adds depth to his role as Phillip Lombard, playing both swashbuckling hero and sleazy womanizer simultaneously, his supposed romance with Lorianne Hill's Vera Claythorn is totally unbelievable. Their pained attempts at showing affection reveal the production's--or maybe Dame Agatha's--weakness at portraying actual human emotions.

But then again, who has time for love when there's a homicidal maniac running around and a mystery to be solved? It would have served the play to leave the love story out.

Jean-Phillipe Sassoli de Bianchi is part swashbuckler and part sleazeball as Phillip Lombard.

And Then There Were None is most successful when it avoids these dull contrivances and sticks with the macabre fun of watching the characters get methodically killed off. With each new body comes new possibilities for who the murderer could be and how he or she could have done it. Possibly it's the doctor who would have access to cyanide. Or it could be the prudish Emily Brent with her Old Testament ideas of justice. The Dreamhouse Ensemble do a solid job of keeping the plot's engine chugging along with a few squeaky gears but overall a smooth and enjoyable ride.

Even those familiar with the story might get a kick out of watching Bill Garnett's nebbish reimagining of Dr. Armstrong or at least feel more a part of the carefully-contained story (since The Space only seats three dozen or so soldier boys) than they did when reading the book.

So consider bringing the kids to Hollywood this weekend for a relaxing evening of cyanide and strangulation.

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