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Theatre Review

TheaterFest's Murder on the Nile Needs Some Fine-Tuning

June 4, 2010 - Raleigh, NC:

Dame Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile (1946), the second vintage whodunit of University Theatre at N.C. State’s three-play TheatreFest 2010 summer season, is a promising production that had not quite gelled by its second performance. Some of the performers were annoyingly shrill, and overall the show never quite found its rhythm, so that it could chug along like the “Lotus,” an antique paddle-wheel steamer whose observation salon serves as an arena where various intriguing Christie characters clasp ancient grudges like vipers to their bosoms and exchange poisonous looks with the objects of their eternal enmity.

When a series of murders ensues, a starchy Anglican clergyman but rather famous amateur sleuth named Canon Ambrose Pennefeather (Danny Norris) boldly steps forward to examine the evidence and try to catch the killer before s/he can strike again. Norris cuts a fine figure as Pennefeather, and Jason Weeks makes an excellent Watson to Pennefeather’s Holmes as Rance, a by-the-book former British Army colonel presently serving as head of security for the hapless cruise line.

Potential victims and prime suspects include Dorothy Recasner Brown as dipsomaniacal novelist Salome Otterbourne and Liz Cervantes as her daughter, caretaker, and sometimes protector Rosalie Otterbourne; JoAnne Dickinson as quarrelsome and secretly larcenous American socialite Mrs. Van Schuyler and Marilee Spell as Mrs. Van Schuyler’s much-abused traveling companion and dogs body Miss Bowers; George Kaiser and Rebecca Jones as honeymooners Simon Doyle and the former Linnett Ridgeway; Maddison Harris as Linnett’s one-time best friend and Doyle’s cruelly cast aside former fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort; Kira Lopez as the Doyles’ French maid Louise; Linh B. Schladweiler as the steamer’s overworked Egyptian Steward; John T. “Jack” Hall III as the Austrian Dr. Bessner; and Robert Steinberg* as the cheeky young lad William Smith, who constantly inveighs against wealth and the upper classes.

Veteran actresses Dorothy Brown, JoAnne Dickinson, and Marilee Spell all expertly mine every tic and twitch of their characters’ idiosyncrasies for belly laughs. Rebecca Jones and George Kaiser are a bit too stiff as a haughty heiress and the feckless husband whom most of the scandal sheets claim married her only for her money. Maddison Harris is far too shrill as poor, pitiful Jacqueline, who follows the Doyles everywhere in hopes of wrecking their honeymoon. Robert Steinberg* is a bit wooden as the iconoclastic Smith, but Jack Hall adds a nicely polished cameo as Dr. Bessner.

Set designer Nick Purdy has created a handsome steamboat salon, and director and co-costume designer John C. McIlwee and co-costume designer Jennifer Dasher have provided a splendidly detailed mid-1930s wardrobe for the cast. But McIlwee needs to curb the shrillness whenever his more youthful performers shout their lines and bring the novice actors and actresses up to speed with the veteran performers with whom they share the stage.

At this second evening of the run, there were far too many people performing at different levels, which kept the dramatic tension from building and the suspense from thickening as the body count soared to an alarming level. If Murder on the Nile is ever smoothly to navigate the delightful twists and turns of Dame Agatha’s complicated script, more polished performances are required.

Murder on the Nile runs through June 19 in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall at N.C. State University. See our theater calendar for details.

*Edited/corrected 6/8/10.