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Caught in ‘The Mousetrap’

Tae Andrews | Monday, February 26, 2007

On a freezing, blustery winter day, newlyweds and hotel owners Mollie and Giles Ralston (played by Kathleen Hession and Nathaniel Grams) receive a phone call from the police informing them that a detective is arriving to carry out a murder investigation. As Mrs. Ralston herself puts it, “all of our guests should be peculiar or odd,” and one of the many eccentric residents of the Monkswell Manor guesthouse is a killer.

After inclement weather snows everyone in, hunter and hunted alike find themselves trapped under one roof as the tension ratchets up before “The Mousetrap” springs its shocking conclusion on the characters and audience alike.

What makes “The Mousetrap” such bloody good fun as a play is its energetic and creative cast, which uses proper British accents and just the right amount of dry humor to present this murder mystery in such a way that presents it in a fresh light while keeping it true to classic form. In other words, this is a high-class whodunit murder mystery with more plot twists and turns than you can shake a teacup at.

Though the script is riddled with cryptic and fleeting clues as to who the killer is, unlike the board game “Clue,” it’s not as easy to figure out as simply deducing that the murderer was Colonel Mustard in the Billiards Room with the rope or Professor Plum in Conservatory with the candlestick. The play weaves in and out as it goes along, casting the spyglass of suspicion on different characters. such as the eccentric Mr. Paravicini (Noah Stanzione). As “The Mousetrap” progresses through its webs of deception, audience members attempt to figure out who the killer is before it’s too late.

The play was originally penned by British mystery author Agatha Christie, and the tale of murder she wrote has been running in London theaters since 1952, including 21,000 different performances. According to us.agathachristie.com, the authoritative Web site on all things Christie, the ‘Queen of Crime’ is the Guinness World Record holder for best-selling fiction author of all time, with an estimated two billion of her books having been sold in multiple languages. Take that, J.K. Rowling.

In putting on such a world-famous and renowned production, the challenge for the Notre Dame production team of “The Mousetrap” was to find a way to put a new spin on the show while keeping it true to its classic origins.

“We are trying to look at this classic British whodunit through a contemporary lens,” said Film, Television and Theatre Professor and “Mousetrap” Director Jay Skelton by e-mail. “Dame Christie wrote ‘The Mousetrap’ immediately following World War II, and the play touches upon issues of post-war suspicion and paranoia that still ring true in our post-9/11 present. I hope that the audience will find that we’ve presented a ripping good murder mystery that also contains some interesting food for thought.”

With such a talented cast and crew, perhaps the most important aspect of “The Mousetrap” from a production standpoint was carefully constructing the stage for the actors to perform on. Enter Marcus Stephens, a visiting professor and freelancer from Chicago who is the production’s set designer and the man responsible for setting the scene – literally.

Made out of a material called lauan – a type of plywood usually made from Philippine mahogany – “The Mousetrap” box set is complete with overpainting and staining to resemble wooden paneling. In addition, the box set employs a ‘raked stage,’ which is angled downward and gives the audience a different perspective on the play than a normal flat stage would. This allows the audience to clearly see the entire set, including the actors’ feet. The picture frame quality to the set and the forced perspective emphasizes the feeling of enclosure, which was a goal of “The Mousetrap” designers and crew.

“The set accelerates the feeling of compaction,” Stephens said. “It just sucks you right into the room. It also includes everyone in on all of the action.”

The picture-frame quality to the play’s set also stresses and enhances the contrast between the cold and snow outside and the intense, fast-paced action inside.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are theatrical sets. According to Ryan Retartha, “The Mousetrap’s” technical director, construction started on the set sometime in mid-December. In his role, Retartha oversaw the development and completion of all the technical aspects of the production, including the construction of the set and everything from painting to props.

Perhaps Retartha and Co. deserve some “props” of their own for hard work put in on this challenging production.

“This is the most ambitious project FTT has ever done from a production standpoint, and I couldn’t have asked for a more hardworking and focused shop staff and crew,” Retartha said. “We’ve all put a lot of hours into this show, and we are all very proud of the outcome.”

The show opens this Tuesday and runs through March 4 in the Decio Mainstage Theatre of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Each night it opens at 7:30 pm except for the Sunday matinee, which begins at 2:30. Admission is $8 for students, $12 for adults and $10 for faculty, staff and senior citizens.