When Kansas City Actors Theatre started fishing for a theme for the launch of its eighth season, the founders first picked one play, then tailored a similar one around that.
They are now poised to give audiences what they're calling its "Summer of Mystery."
Opening this week is Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which is marking its 60th anniversary in London and is believed to have laid the foundation for all subsequent theatrical mysteries. The St. Martin's Theatre in the West End, that city's equivalent to New York's Broadway theater district, is currently housing Agatha Christie's seminal mystery, The Mousetrap, which like the Queen herself, is celebrating its own Diamond Jubilee.
On The Mousetrap's official website, a deadly serious narrator sets up the action: "In connection with the murder, the police are anxious to interview a man seen in the vicinity wearing a dark overcoat, light scarf, and soft felt hat."
A Reason for Being
Kansas City Actors Theatre has in its eight seasons staged some scabrous dramas, like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Glengarry Glen Ross. So a British drawing room mystery that's been staged countless times in community theaters and high schools was kind of unexpected, even for one of its cast, Gary Neal Johnson.
"When I first heard they were doing The Mousetrap, I thought, KCAT doing The Mousetrap?," Johnson says prior to a recent rehearsal. "I don’t think anyone out there is dying to do The Mousetrap. One, because they may not know about it. And they’re all pretty stock characters – or seem to be stock characters.
"But it’s deceiving. The more I thought about it - it’s got great credentials. We are talking about the longest running play in the Western World. How can you pooh-pooh that?"
Natalie Liccardello also plays a character who is suspected in the show's central murder. She says she once appeared in a "bad dinner theater production" of the show but agrees with Johnson that there are compelling reasons to revisit the play.
"I play Molly Ralston. She’s one of the proprietors of the guest house and, on the page, she’s this stock ingénue," Liccardello says.
"But when you dig down a little deeper, there’s darkness. She has a past. It’s fun to elevate the stock character to something deserving. There are moments in rehearsal where we stop and say, 'Oh my God. At this point they know this and if I know that, then I know you' so yeah, it’s a neat sort of web."
Murder by Death
Directing the show is KCAT co-founder Mark Robbins, who's finding that the play not only offers viable theatrics but intricate and unpredictable twists and turns.
"It’s just wonderful to see two hours being taken up by this interplay of characters. Invariably, all of them have some terrible, deep dark secret," Robbins says. "And the trick is, at some point in the evening, you as the audience member has to suspect that any one of them is capable of bludgeoning someone to death.
"It's like a nightmare where you think you're surrounded by people you know when suddenly, with just a slight turn of perception in your brain, everyone is a stranger."
Mum's the Word
Of course the payoff of any murder mystery is discovering the killer along with the detective. Robbins hopes to enlist the audience in keeping the secret.
"When we started talking about doing this play, I said, 'I don't remember whodunit. I don't remember how it came out.'
"There's been a long-standing tradition in the London production. They say 'Please don't tell. You're on the honor system. Please don't give away the ending to anyone else.' And I think we're going to do that here. Ask the audience to clam up after they leave."
Five days after closing the show, the theater continues its theme with a more contemporary mystery, Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, said to be a comedic homage to The Mousetrap.
Kansas City Actor Theatre's The Mousetrap runs from August 8-26, 2012, at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station, Pershing and Main. The Real Inspector Hound runs August 31-September 14, 2012 at the same venue. For tickets, call 816-235-6222 or go online at www.kcactors.org.