One might wonder what keeps people going to (and producing) versions of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” Diamond Head Theatre is staging it for the third time – first in 1972, second in 1988, and this 2016 version – with performances continuing through Feb. 21. Yet looking at “The Mousetrap” through a strictly local perspective greatly limits an understanding of its global and enduring nature.
Christie converted a short radio play into this theatrical version in 1952, and it has been performed on London’s West End ever since, making it the longest-running show of any sort in modern times. But its connections to societal culture run even deeper.
It riffs off the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice,” and its simple accompanying tune, which have been circulating in popular culture for centuries. The song reportedly was created to commemorate the Oxford Martyrs in the 1600s, victims of Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) but was adopted into English children’s literature in the 1800s. It has been reappropriated into various types of family-fare entertainment since, including a Walt Disney cartoon, a “Three Stooges” episode and a James Bond film.
Like many pervasive fairy tales, though, “Three Blind Mice” has a dark undertone to it, punctuated by the moment when the tails of the rodents are chopped off with a carving knife. That gruesome and gross scene – imagine it, just for a moment, happening in your kitchen – quickly fades away under the spell of the mesmerizing plinking-along ditty that keeps one moving through the narrative.
Diamond Head Theatre’s rendition of “The Mousetrap” embodies that flitting spirit well, with relentless pacing that is funny and light but also used in ways to avert attention toward the spectacle of the complicated action, not the grisly details of the situation.
With lineage to Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others working in this genre, the piece epitomizes the classic English murder-mystery. A few people are trapped together in an isolated place, in this case, a huge home, outside of London, which is opening for the first time as a boarding house, during a snowstorm. A person is killed, and all of the others in that small group become suspects, as their stories progressively unfold, under questioning by an authority figure, and continually oscillate between likely guilt or probable innocence as each detail emerges.
The 1950s are reflected subtlety in the period dress, and the set is minimal, but effective, highlighted by a background of tall white trees, seen through empty window panes, adjoined by various open and closed door portals. Snow occasionally falls in the background, but the snow cradle (a large perforated bag of sorts, used to shake out the “snow”), has been hung too low on this set, or not properly obscured from the audience’s view, creating a distracting transparency to the use of this special effect.
British or Scottish accents are adopted, even by the pre-show announcer, yet they fade in many cases as the action speeds up, and the actors become distracted with other tasks. Ahnya Chang, as the protagonist and inn-owner Mollie Ralston, plays her part straight and seriously, and holds the show together, but some of the supplementary characters, such as Thomas Ilalaole (as Christopher Wren) and LeGrand Lawrence (as Mr. Paravicini) stretch into absurdist comedy, reaching too far at times for laughs, which weakens the overall effect of the story. Ilalaole often comes back into line with the other performers and has more nuanced and complex interpretations of his character, but Lawrence settles into a clown role that becomes tiresome by the second act. While none of the performers really stand out otherwise in this ensemble, Garret Hols, in the prime role of Detective Sgt. Trotter, seems to struggle with the importance of his part, in the overall picture, and conveying the depth of the role. But he also does enough to get by.
Whether this is the first time seeing “The Mousetrap,” or you have come back to watch with insider’s knowledge, the thrill of this piece really comes from the ways in which Christie slowly untangles the yarn. The audience knows nothing of these characters at the beginning, and the playwright masterfully reveals idea after idea, detail by detail, that challenges the intellect to reconfigure and reconnect the narrative continually while the action whizzes by and emerging information changes everything you thought you already knew in almost every moment.
Director Rob Duval understands this core strength of the piece, and what has made it so long-lasting, and rarely erects obstacles to slow down that progression. He seems to get why people want to come to “The Mousetrap,” and he and the performers align on that purpose and generally stay out of the way.
What: “The Mousetrap,” by Agatha Christie, performed by Diamond Head Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 14; with additional performances at 3 p.m. Feb. 6 and Feb. 13, 8 p.m. Feb. 20 and 4 p.m. Feb. 21
Where: Diamond Head Theatre, 520 Makapuu Ave., Honolulu
Cost: $15 to $35
For more information: www.diamondheadtheatre.com or 808-733-0274
Directed by Rob Duval; set design by Willie Sabel; lighting and props design by Christina Sutrov; costume design by Karen G. Wolfe; sound design by Kerri Yoneda; hair and makeup design by Friston S. Ho‘Okano; production stage management by Trudi Melohn; executive director is Deena Dray, and artistic director is John Rampage.
With: Ahnya Chang (Mollie Ralston), Jeff Brackett (Giles Ralston), Thomas Ilalaole (Christopher Wren), Regina Ewing (Mrs. Boyle), Saul Rollason (Major Metcalf), Therese Olival (Miss Casewell), LeGrand Lawrence (Mr. Paravicini), and Garret Hols (Detective Sgt. Trotter).