To kick off their biggest season yet, Kansas City Actors Theatre’s board members knew they had to start with a crowd-pleaser, one that would stand out from an otherwise dour season (count “King Lear” and the late Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” among the plays).
So they looked back three years to their hit in Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap” and knew what their opener had to be: another of Christie’s classics, “And Then There Were None.”
It seemed like the perfect fit from the start: a cast of intriguing characters suitable for a multitalented group of actors.
“We felt this was really quite worthy of the KCAT moniker,” said director John Rensenhouse. “Every time I work on one of Christie’s plays, my appreciation for her is born anew, and this has been no different.”
Audiences can view Christie’s magnum opus Aug. 9-27 at the City Stage at Union Station. The cast mixes Kansas City acting icons with those making their KCAT (and Kansas City) debuts. Their 11 characters are lured to an island under different pretenses with different guilty backstories. The title of the play points toward what happens next.
But this version of the play isn’t exactly how Christie adapted it for the stage in 1943. The plot is a little different to be truer to the spirit of her original novel. And that’s all that the cast will give away.
But cast members were happy to speak at length about the other iconic aspects of Christie’s most famous piece.
“This is the first time I’ve done an Agatha Christie, and it’s kind of an actor’s dream come true, because of the richness, and the psychology, and just the world that these characters exist in,” said Manon Halliburton, who plays elderly spinster Emily Brent. “It’s just fun to be able to do. I always find something new every time we go through it.”
“And Then There Were None” is not just a murder mystery, Rensenhouse said, but a complex play that examines society, religion and class distinctions, as well as themes of justice and the extent of the human conscience.
“It’s not like stock, where you’re getting it done,” said Victor Raider-Wexler, who plays retired judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave. (Raider-Wexler was also a board member instrumental in the selection of the piece.) “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to deliver something, too.’ This company cares, number one, about actors — it’s in the title — and in order to care about our audience and sustain, we have to deliver.”
Audiences can still expect classic whodunit fun, especially with extravagant costumes, comedic moments and an original score by sound director Jonathan Robertson. Rather than try to hunt for the perfect piece, Roberston decided to create the specific sound he imagined for the show, heightening tension with his own music composed for a string trio.
“I felt like, if we’re going to underscore specific action, we should compose to that specific action,” Robertson said. “Then I could come up with extra musical metaphors that feed into the music and help to tell the story better than pulling music off the shelf.”
While the show is certainly a masterpiece of murder mystery theater, he and the cast said they have some tricks up their sleeves, and what audiences think they see may not be the whole truth.
“If you’ve never seen a play, this would be the one to see,” Halliburton said.
But the collection of actors is the singular standout, said Raider-Wexler, pointing to the seasoned local talent in the show, including Halliburton, Robert Gibby Brand, Scott Cordes, Ellen Kirk, Kyle Dyck, Bonnie Griffin and Matt Rapport.
“I’ve watched these people and so has everyone else. This town has created a little fandom, you know,” Raider-Wexler said. “If people are in a play, I just don’t want to miss that play — no matter what happens.”
“And Then There Were None” is the first of five KCAT shows, plus a staged reading series this spring — the most the theater has performed in one season. Coming up: “A Lie of the Mind,” Sept. 13-Oct. 1; “King Lear,” Oct. 13-22; “Sea Marks,” Jan. 10-28; and “Skylight,” May 23-June 10.
“And Then There Were None” runs Aug. 9-27 at the City Stage in Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or see kcactors.org.
Also opening this week
▪ The Living Room Theatre’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a world premiere production, a three-person, 90-minute retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Aug. 9-Sept. 3. See thelivingroomkc.com.
▪ Musical Theatre Heritage presents the original revue “An Evening With George Gershwin,” Aug. 10-27 in Crown Center. A four-person ensemble will perform original arrangements of Gershwin’s most famous works, backed by a 10-piece big band. See mthkc.com.