Agatha Christie is a master of the surprise ending, but when you go to one of her plays you know exactly what to expect.
There will be stereotypes of upper-class Brits, at least one cleverly devised murder, lots of suspects, inventive plot twists and crisply written dialogue. There will be suspense, but more humor than horror, and very little blood. It will be pure storytelling, entertaining with no pretense of offering substance or statement.
And Then There Were None — alternately titled Ten Little Indians — is classic Christie, and the current production from Hat Trick Theatre Productions ably delivers everything you see a Christie play for.
The plot has 10 disparate people, almost all unknown to each other, who have been invited by a mysterious host to a house on a tiny British Island. They arrive by boat and learn that their host will not join them immediately. A gramophone explains that each of the 10 guests has been involved in the death of an innocent person.
One by one, the 10 start dying, and eventually they realize that the deaths parallel those in a children's rhyme about 10 little soldiers (or 10 little Indians, depending on the version of the play), a copy of which hangs on the living room wall. With each death, a figurine mysteriously disappears from a shelf. There is no one else in the house — in fact, no one else on the island — so the killer has to be one of the 10 guests.
Each death narrows down the possible killer and the possible next victim. There's no detective work (although there is, at first, a detective among the houseguests). The audience merely waits to see who remains alive.
The Hat Trick production, directed by Jack Holloway, is packed with fine performances from an 11-person cast. (Besides the houseguests, there's the guy who delivers them on his boat, but soon leaves.) Ami Sallee and Betty-Jane Parks, unquestionably two of the area's best actors, stand out, but there's really not a weak performer worth mentioning in the entire cast.
It's not often 10 actors are all on the Shimberg Playhouse stage at once, and early in the play the set (a single room in the island house), is cramped. Holloway does an impressive job of keeping his actors moving so that the play seems fluid, but keeping the movement natural enough that it's not distracting.
Bridgette Dreher's set is attractive and acceptably elegant, and Gi Sung's costumes are perfect for the era and for the characters. Jonathan Cho composed some nicely creepy underscoring. (He also performs the music live from backstage with Heather Blalock, and plays one of the houseguests.)
It's hugely fun, but there are some problems. Most significantly, the audience never really gets invested in the two-dimensional characters, and therefore never really cares who will die next or who will turn out to be the killer. There are no chills, and even the plot twist at the end that reveals the killer's identity is only marginally surprising. Almost everyone in the audience knows the genre well enough to expect a twist at the end, so few are caught off-guard.
A more basic problem is that the dialogue is often hard to discern, at least toward the rear of the theater, especially when the actors often have to compete with music and sound effects.
This is Hat Trick's first show since coming back to Tampa. The company started here and then relocated to Hudson for several years. Most of the company's Tampa shows were at the tiny Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor City. They'll now be staging all their shows at the Shimberg. It's always been an interesting company and this show is a welcome and promising return.