Even those familiar with the classic whodunit plot will be enthralled with this new adaptation

It takes a great deal of self-assurance to take on a classic such as Agatha Christie’s famous whodunit Murder on the Orient Express. But accomplished comedic playwright Ken Ludwig, of Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo fame, is more than up for the challenge with this delightful, funny adaptation of the murder mystery.

Christie wrote the thriller in 1934, and it’s been widely adapted for radio, film, television, and even a computer game. But there hasn’t been a stage version until the late writer’s estate chose Ludwig to adapt the novel for stage. It debuted in 2017, and the Arvada Center Black Box Repertory is one of the first local theaters to stage the play.

While hard-core Christie fans may decry the creative license that Ludwig has taken with the original novel, I’ll wager that most will appreciate the streamlined characters, well-paced plot and clever dialog and repartee in the stage adaptation. Overall, the changes Ludwig made should still satisfy those familiar with the more complex mystery as well as entertain novices with an easily deducible mystery that presents enough intrigue and curiosity to keep them entertained throughout.

The in-the-round configuration at the Black Box Theatre adds a surprising new element to the staging of the show.

Perfect introduction to theater in the round

Not only did the adapted script deliver, Black Box Repertory’s staging, scenery and acting were also superb. Director Geoffrey Kent brought it all together for a perfect launch to the 2020 Black Box Repertory season. It also served as a strong and seamless introduction to the new “theater in the round” configuration for the theater.

The round stage and surrounding seating are a collaboration between scenic designer Brian Mallgrave and lighting designer Shannon McKinney. As promised, the new configuration takes the background scenery out of the equation and places the emphasis on the actors. While this creates an intimate setting with no walls or other background materials to obscure the action, it also creates a challenge for establishing a set with props and lighting.

Mallgrave’s minimal setting consisted of a circular metal train station sign hanging overhead and matching signs over two main doorways. Despite its simplicity, the masterful lighting and stylized letters managed to evoke the atmosphere of an exotic train station. And McKinney’s lighting helped convert the stage into the narrow, confined train cars where most of the action takes place.

Director Kent once again displays his impeccable sense of timing by having the actors move the props (mainly beds, chairs, tables and lamps) in an almost choreographed manner in the darkened theater. The ebb and flow take full advantage of the four entryways to the stage, where at times all 10 actors gracefully glide the bulky items around each other as they virtually pirouette across the limited space. The “dance” was so well done that, at the end of each complex reset, the audience applauded.

The company’s actors also did an admirable job of creating walls and doors from empty space as they squeezed by one another in the narrow train hallway and maneuvered around in small “compartments” primarily defined by imagination.

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