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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

March 7, 2024 Issue
PART 3 (March 11, 2023)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


Jeffrey Blair Cornell Gives a Passionate Performance as
Hercule Poiret in PRC's Murder on the Orient Express

PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of Ken Ludwig's 2017 stage adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie, offers Agatha Christie fans the opportunity to introduce her work to the young people in their lives (PlayMakers recommends 10 years and older), most of whom have likely never heard of the prolific author.

The play opens on a small rocking horse in the center of an empty stage, the ghostly sound of a singing child echoing throughout the theater. Moments after the rocking horse appears, it is whisked to the back of the stage and beyond, and detective Hercule Poirot, played by Jeffrey Blair Cornell, walks onto the stage. Cornell's French -- err, Belgian -- accent is impeccable and, with his trademark upward-curled mustache, endearing as he introduces himself and the mystery that is about to unfold. Throughout the production, Cornell plays the somewhat vain, aging bachelor with the passion and determination for which the detective, who has appeared in 33 of Christie's novels, is renowned.

Murder on the Orient Express stars Jeffrey Blair Cornell (left) as Hercule Poiret and Jeffrey Meanza as Monsieur Bouc (photo by HuthPhoto)

One by one, the audience is introduced to the other characters, all of whom are first-class passengers on the Orient Express, a luxury train leaving Istanbul that day. Every character is eccentric, and the actors all play them with aplomb and well-rehearsed accents: French, British, Russian, Scottish, German, Hungarian, American -- the accents alone are reason enough for a theater student to study this production. Kudos to vocal coach Katie Cunningham.

Hope Alexander's portrayal of the wealthy and elderly Princess Dragomiroff is palpably cold and distant. Jim Roof's rendition of Samuel Ratchett, the business-like American mobster, is reminiscent of James Gandolfini in the hit series The Sopranos.

The PRC cast for Murder on the Orient Express includes (from left) Hope Alexander (rear) as Princess Dragomiroff, Hayley Cartee as
Countess Andrenyi, Saleemah Sharpe as Mary Debenham, and Matthew Donahue as Colonel Arbuthnot (photo by HuthPhoto)

Matthew Donahue's burly representation and rolling Scottish accent as Colonel Arbuthnot is strong and charismatic. Gwendolyn Schwinke's and Adam Valentine's roles as the bumbling Greta Ohlsson and Hector MacQueen, respectively, are comical yet believable. And Michel the Conductor, played by Reez Bailey; Mary Debenham, portrayed by Saleemah Sharpe; and Countess Andrenyi, played by Hayley Cartee, are all true to their written characters and purposes.

But the highlights of the show are Julia Gibson's Helen Hubbard, Jeffrey Meanza's Monsieur Bouc, and Jeffrey Blair Cornell's Hercule Poirot. With her stereotypical American devil-may-care attitude and blunt verbosity, Gibson tickles the audience's funny bone every time she appears. And the kindred spirits of Monsieur Bouc and Detective Poirot are more than additive when Meanza and Cornell are together on stage.

PlayMakers Rep mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell stars as Hercule Poiret in Murder on the Orient Express (photo by HuthPhoto)

Scenic designer Tony Cisek's set is an equally strong character, as the same luxurious furniture and gold-framed representations of doorways are manipulated to create altogether different scenes -- a restaurant, a train platform, the common and private rooms of the train -- throughout the production.

Director Tracy Bersley can stand proud with her PlayMakers' main-stage directorial debut with Ken Ludwig's stage adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. This production is a clean, family-friendly rendition of the 1934 drama that is, no doubt, true to Agatha Christie's vision, and that is sure to garner audience interest in embarking on a real-life luxury train excursion in the present tense.

PlayMakers Rep's March 6-24 presentation of Murder on the Orient Express stars (from left) Jeffrey Blair Cornell
as Hercule Poiret, Jeffrey Meanza as Monsieur Bouc, and Julia Gibson as Helen Hubbard (photo by HuthPhoto)

Ken Ludwig's 2017 stage adapation of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 12-17 and 19-24), based on Agatha Christie's 1934 novel, directed by resident movement coach Tracy Bersley, and starring (in alphabetical order) Hope Alexander as Princess Dragomiroff, Reez Bailey as Michel the Conductor, Hayley Cartee as Countess Andrenyi, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Hercule Poirot, Matthew Donahue as Colonel Arbuthnot, Julia Gibson as Helen Hubbard, Jeffrey Meanza as Monsieur Bouc, Jim Roof as Samuel Ratchett, Gwendolyn Schwinke as Greta Ohlsson, Saleemah Sharpe as Mary Debenham, and Adam Valentine as Hector Macqueen (PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). DIGITAL PROGRAM: TRAILER: MORE PRC VIDEOS: PRESENTER:,,,, and 2024-25 SEASON: PRC BLOG: VENUE: and DIRECTIONS/PARKING: CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017 Princeton, NJ Dramatic Comedy):,, and THE SCRIPT (excerpts): KEN LUDWIG (York, PA-born playwright and screenwriter):,,,,, and NOTE 1: The 2 p.m. Sunday, March 17th, performance will be an Open-Captioned Performance, with a Post-Show Discussion. NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe and American-sign-language interpret the show's 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 19th, performance. TICKETS: $20 and up ($10 students and youth), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-962-7529 or [email protected]. PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of the Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as a Soil and Water Conservationist for the nonprofit Urban Sustainability Solutions. Click here to read Melissa Rooney's reviews for Triangle Review.


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