A high-end “hotel on the rails.” A mixed group of society folks and their attendants. Trapped by a snowstorm in Yugoslavia, a traveler is murdered. The unexpected factor: a last-minute passenger who is also a renowned Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot.
Fans of the highly successful mystery writer Agatha Christie will recognize the plot of her 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express,” which subsequently appeared in radio, television and two movie productions (1974 and 2017). Actors such as Albert Finney, David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh have waxed impressive moustaches to bring Poirot to life.
The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem’s production of the novel’s stage version, created by veteran playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me A Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) in 2017 at the request of the Agatha Christie estate, opens Friday night at Hanesbrands Theatre. Veteran regional actor Ralph Shaw takes on the famed detective character, under the direction of Ron Law.
Law was attracted to the project by the complex requirements and a familiarity with the story.
“I was attracted to this show because of the wonderful script and all the challenges it presents. This is my 94th production as a director, and I really look to be challenged. The cast is strong and hard-working, and they are having a great deal of fun with this script, which brings much energy, dedication and solid craft to the work,” Law said.
Law was already familiar with Agatha Christie mysteries, having seen the original 1974 movie, directed “The Hollow” while a professor at High Point University, and produced “And Then There Were None” at Theatre Charlotte. “I also love her play ‘The Mousetrap.’”
“Directing a mystery,” Law said, “like solving one, is making sure you follow all the clues and that the cast understands them as well. You have to be aware of all misdirection and make certain the actors do not give anything away they’re not supposed to.”
He noted that Ludwig’s adaptation “has presented theaters with many challenges.” The locations move from an Istanbul hotel to the city’s train station, to four locations on the train, including three adjoining compartments.
“We are utilizing music, sound effects, lighting effects and projections to enhance the storytelling,” he said. “It’s also a period piece — 1934 — with all the costuming, make up and hairstyles of that time.
“Furthermore, when you are dealing with an iconic character such as Hercule Poirot, you must take into account audience expectations. A lot of research has been done to recreate this ‘genius detective,’ including his habits, dress and attitudes,” Law said.
A dialect coach, Leah Roy from Wake Forest University, is guiding the cast through the French, British, Hungarian, Russian and the distinct Minnesota sound from America.
For Shaw, portraying Poirot didn’t take an introduction to Dame Christie’s work.
“I started reading Agatha Christie novels in sixth or seventh grade, after having my taste for mysteries whetted by ‘The Hardy Boys,’ ‘Nancy Drew,’ and ‘Brains Benton’ books,” he said. “I started with Miss Marple and worked my way through to Poirot.”
Knowing the background of Poirot, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy to play him onstage.
“Well, certainly,” Shaw said of the process, “becoming a French-speaking Belgian, born in the late 1800s, who has a number of eccentricities and is a genius at solving crimes presents some gigantic challenges. Not to mention that being a character with a lot of dialogue is very daunting.”
Dealing with a large cast of potential suspects lets Shaw show Poirot’s technique.
“I like to inquire into everything. Hercule Poirot is a good dog. The good dog follows the scent, and if there is no scent to follow, he noses around, seeking always something that is not very nice,” he said.
“Working with a very talented and hilarious cast and production staff makes this the most fun I’ve had since 2019,” Shaw said.
“If you like detective stories — mysteries — you should enjoy this show, even if you have not experienced Agatha Christie,” Law said. “It is fast-paced and Poirot is required to solve a gruesome murder. Playwright Ludwig has deftly blended humor into this famous murder mystery.”