Murder at Surf City Theatre!
Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap” springs open at Surf City Theatre
by Bondo Wyszpolski
“The Mousetrap” premiered in London’s West End on Oct. 6, 1952, and it’s still on the boards. Agatha Christie herself thought it might have a shelf-life of about eight months. She’s only been off by about six decades. Six decades and counting.
Surf City Theatre is presenting it locally for just three weeks, or will it go on for several years?
In the meantime, “The Mousetrap” is a murder mystery that’s set in Monkwell Manor, an old mansion now being run as a guesthouse by its young proprietors, Giles Ralston and his wife Mollie (played here by Jason Cook and Jessica Gable). There are six others in the cast (see below), which is directed by Daniel Tennant. Let’s chat with the Ralstons and then check in with Mr. Tennant, shall we? Greeted at the front desk
“This is our big business venture,” Jason says. “We just opened.”
“Neither one of us has any experience in hotel management,” Jessica adds, “but for some reason we decided to do this.”
This is the first time that either actor has appeared in a production for Surf City Theatre. For that matter…
“It’s actually my first theater piece in the L.A. area,” Jessica says. “I only moved here (from Chicago) about a year ago.”
You came out here to pursue acting?
“Yes,” she replies. “I actually switched careers. I was a journalist for a while, but I decided that I wanted to pursue my first love, which is acting.”
This could be the start of a stellar career, so don’t throw away this newspaper.
“I’m a minister who does a lot of work as an actor on the side,” Jason says, “usually in Orange County. So it’s nice to be in a new area.”
Meanwhile I’m thinking: Hmm, a real-life minister who plays an onstage murderer?
Jessica also notes that this is the first time she’s been to the South Bay. “I just love this building especially,” she says of the Hermosa Beach Community Center. “It’s so evocative of an earlier time and I feel like it’s so appropriate for this particular play. It’s going to place the audience exactly in the ‘50s.”
“They really put a lot of care into the set and the period details,” Jason says, “and making sure that the things that we’re touching are actually antiques; and that brings us back to the time period and makes it feel very real.”
It’s a, shall we say, modest stage; but the company has clearly made the most of it.
“The show has been very carefully blocked because it does have a lot of characters,” Jason continues. “It’s like Agatha Christie has written a great big chess game. If you’ve noticed, there’s maybe four or five entrances and exits, and we’re very used to a lot of people moving around in a small area and then making sure that we do all that with a lot of precision.”
As far as having affinities with their characters:
“I liked Mollie immediately when I auditioned for her,” Jessica says. “She has a kind of whimsy, and also this reservoir of strength that I wanted to explore.”
Later she adds: “Mollie is a character that I gravitate towards because in a lot of ways I’m not entirely different from her. I like playing characters who have a light center, who have a kind of brightness at the core of their being, and I feel like she’s essentially a very caring person, very nurturing.”
But you’re not being lulled by her charming words, are you? Now listen up:
Regarding the identity of the murderer, Jessica says, “What I love about this play is that it could be any character. It might be me, it might be you.”
It’s probably a generic “you,” but maybe it really is me, Bondo “the sly one” Wyszpolski, the journalist whose part is to write a preview story but never actually appear onstage. Now there’s a plot twist you hadn’t considered, right?
“I have done a few mysteries and thrillers,” Jason says, “these kind of mid-century pieces,” and he mentions “Wait Until Dark” and Agatha Christie’s “Love From a Stranger.” “I find that audiences still really respond to that style of whodunit.”
He adds that he’s quite impressed with the current ensemble. “I think it will be a joy for the audience to watch everyone because there are so many layers going on. Any one of these people could have done it (“it” being the murder), and I think our actors pull that off beautifully.”
“I agree with Jason wholeheartedly,” Jessica says. “It’s the kind of show that I would love to watch. I’m a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock and I feel like it has the same tension throughout that I just find exhilarating; and I can’t wait to share that with the audience.” In honor of the Queen
As one might surmise, the guests of Monkwell Manor become stranded there while a snowstorm rages outside. Apart from the proprietors, to whom you’ve now been formally introduced, we have Aaron Fitzgerald (as Christopher Wren), Geraldine Fuentes (Mrs. Boyle), John Mann (Major Metcalf), Jeremy Krasovic (Mr. Paravicini), Lindsey Jacobs (Miss Casewell), and Lior Burlin (Sgt. Trotter). But let’s sit down briefly with the director of “The Mousetrap,” Daniel Tennant.
“This is my sixth production with Surf City Theatre,” he says. “I started with their second full-length production which was ‘Norman, Is That You’ back in 2012.”
He appeared in that play as well as “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” He then directed “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some).”
Tennant recalls seeing a production of “The Mousetrap” back in 2004 or 2005.
“But it was so long ago I don’t remember which part a friend of mine played in that production.”
However, it was either as a suspect or a murderer, that much is certain.
The play was originally titled “Three Blind Mice” but for legal reasons it had to be renamed.
“It started off as a radio play in honor of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday,” Tennant says. It was aired on May 30, 1947. The radio play became a short story, and then Agatha Christie turned that into the stage play. It opened on Oct. 6, 1952, and currently there have been over 27,000 performances.
And can we assume it’s a different cast?
“It’s a different cast, of course,” Tennant replies (and I hope he realizes I was trying to be funny). “But they do change the cast annually to keep it fresh for the audiences. It’s probably got one of Agatha Christie’s best twists to it, and I think that’s why the play has been running for nearly 66 years now.”
Tennant admits that he did quite a bit of research and delved into the background of “The Mousetrap.” But that’s not all:
“I do have a little bit of a tie (with the story’s historical aspect) in that I’ve been employed at the ‘Queen Mary,’ named after Her Majesty Queen Mary, for 12 and a half years. I’m always followed by that ship wherever I go, whatever I do.”
Sounds like the plot of a horror novel, but anyway…
“We were able to assemble an excellent cast, team, crew. Everyone has just been so wonderful to work with. They even had me fooled the other night on who the murderer was.”
Ah, so it changes every night?
“It doesn’t change every night, but they were doing such a great job that momentarily I forgot who it actually was.” We laugh, and then I think, Hmm, since there’s no butler in the play, what if it’s the director?
Now we’ll all need to go and find out. It could even be the concessionaire or the ticket seller.
The Mousetrap, presented by Surf City Theatre, opens Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Second Story Theatre, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach (down the hall from the Hermosa Playhouse). Additional performances are Sept. 16 at 2 p.m. as well as Sept. 21-23 and 28-30, with Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. as well as Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m. matinees. Tickets, $28. Call (424) 241-8040, visit surfcitytheatre.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. ER