Theatre Review: “Mousetrap” merits more applause

February 7, 2010


So . . . it’s terribly, terribly hard to cast a community theatre production in which all of the actors seem perfectly suited to their roles.

Directors facing a shortage of age-appropriate, gender-appropriate or (dare it even be said) talented actors have been known to take liberties with a playwright’s carefully-concocted casting notes, lassoing family members into taking unsuitable parts, changing male roles into female ones, or allowing an actor to speak a singing role, à la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

Lucky for Central Coast audiences, it appears that the director of Santa Maria Civic Theatre’s third offering of its 2009-10 season didn’t have to go to such lengths. Larry Kaml has assembled a fine cast that individually and collectively looks just right for the mysterious and melodramatic Agatha Christie classic The Mousetrap.

A short synopsis for those unfamiliar with this period piece (don’t worry – no spoilers here): one of several guests snowbound at a remote English country inn circa 1952 is brutally murdered, and unless the innkeepers and the other guests can figure out which one of them did it (cue the menacing music), the murderer will most certainly kill again.

Within that context, every character is a suspect, and every character a potential victim. One by one each player is introduced, with ominous radio news announcements, unexpected arrivals and perfectly-timed theatrics meant to call attention to even the smallest details. At one point one of the innkeepers makes the observation that “all our guests are either unpleasant or odd” – and it’s up to the audience to guess which is which (at least until the curtain comes down on the third act).

The importance of timing can’t be overstated as this “deadly” mystery with plenty of laughs unfolds. The frequent and often energetic comings and goings of characters as well as the sound and lighting cues keep actors on their toes and audience members engaged. Opening night presented a couple of minor pacing problems and a missed cue here and there – but nothing these diligent actors can’t fix.

Among the most diligent is Aiyani Mersai (Miss Casewell), arguably one of the most engaged, and engaging, performers in this production. A graduate of PCPA, she brings a focused, steady clarity to her role as one of many guests who aren’t quite what they seem.

SMCT newcomer Ariel Wesler as Christopher Wren, the first guest to arrive at the inn, takes such obvious great delight in his role that he more than lives up to the many colorful adjectives later applied to him by other characters (“peculiar” certainly winning out as most appropriate).

Wesler’s energy level is matched by that of another newcomer to SMCT, Valor McConnell. They, along with Angela Hutt-Chamberlin, Iain Freckleton, Ron Kewish, David Pera and Judie Kewish do Agatha Christie and director Larry Kaml proud as they play out some pretty sinister hijinks to a quite satisfying conclusion.

The production’s program notes refer to the enduring nature of The Mousetrap and the playwright’s ability to “keep audiences on the edge of their seats as well as keeping the seats filled.” Unfortunately, the opening night audience, while responsive and appreciative, was quite small. This production, its actors and its crew, deserve better from Central Coast theatre-goers.

In the “Behind the Scenes” department, assistant director Jennifer Hannegan is credited with the lighting design, and director Larry Kaml is credited with the set design. Both rate a standing ovation for their skillful double duty on a play as complex as The Mousetrap.

There’s still time to catch the show, which runs through Feb. 27. Visit the CalCoastNews Community Event Calendar for details.