Theater Group at SBCC to present ‘Murder on the Orient Express’
A train stops on the stage — with Hercule Poirot right on track to solve a murder.
It could only be Dame Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”
“It was a script that I had read before the pandemic,” said Katie Laris, director of the Theater Group at SBCC production, which debuts this week at the City College’s Garvin Theatre.
Preview shows will take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, followed by performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 19.
“We wanted to do it before a live audience, so we put it on hold for a couple years,” Ms. Laris told the News-Press. “We are so happy to be actually producing it live in our theater with a live audience and with great experienced actors, beautiful sets, incredible costumes, making it happen right in person with everybody. I’m really glad we waited until this moment in time.”
For Poirot, the time is just after midnight, and snow has stopped the Orient Express. An American tycoon is found dead in his compartment. He was stabbed a dozen times, and Poirot has a mystery as he tries to identify the killer.
“It’s not easy to solve,” Ms. Laris said.
Ms. Laris recalled reading Ms. Christie’s novel many years ago and seeing a movie adaptation.
“I went back and read the novel. It was just as engrossing and wonderful as I remembered,” Ms. Laris said.
“That’s because Agatha Christie’s work is so character driven,” she said, praising Ms. Christie for her attention to detail.
“Every single character gives the actor something to try to create,” Ms. Laris said. “Aside from the mystery, it’s what makes it a great ride.”
And there’s a train on stage.
“The train moves back and forth between compartments,” Ms. Laris said. “It’s set in 1934, essentially when Christie wrote the novel.”
She said the Theater Group at SBCC paid attention to the details, to make sure the train is spectacular — “the finest in luxury travel.
“We haven’t been able to travel to far-flung places as much as we would like to,” Ms. Laris said, referring to the pandemic. “The theater allows us to do that, to travel vicariously through the characters on stage.”
Playing one of those characters — Poirot, the Belgian detective with the stylish mustache, bowler hat and brilliant mind — is Matthew Tavianini.
“I think for me, the challenge of taking on this role is that it operates from a very cerebral aspect,” Mr. Tavianini told the News-Press. “That’s a little opposite of what I do as an actor in Box Tales (another Santa Barbara theater company) where I’m using my body and a mask to create different characters. This is more self-contained with Poirot’s logic of figuring things out by observation and analysis.
“The way he carries himself physically is very controlled and compact,” said Mr. Tavianini, who was present when the News-Press talked to Ms. Laris. “That’s been really fun to explore. Katie’s direction is helping me.”
Ms. Laris praised Mr. Tavianini for his portrayal of Poirot. “Matt is a completely brilliant, experienced and warm, very nuanced actor. We’re so lucky to have him in this role.”
Fans have seen various portrayals on the big and small screens of Poirot, varying from Peter Ustinov in the 1970s and ‘80s movies to Kenneth Branagh in “Death on the Nile,” now in theaters.
“Matt brought a fresh perspective to the character,” Ms. Laris said. “There are nuances and elements outside of the standard-issue Poirot.
“He has a romantic longing with one of the characters,” Ms. Laris said, referring to one of the elements in Ms. Christie’s story.
She noted Mr. Tavianini shows “a kind of warmth, personal compassion that sometimes is not part of the standard-issue Poirot.”
Ms. Laris added that in Ken Ludwig’s stage adaptation of Ms. Christie’s classic, Poirot is wrestling with what defines morality and justice.
Poirot must balance his own humanity versus a pursuit of justice, no matter the cost.
“That is Poirot’s essential struggle,” Ms. Laris said. “This production frames that conflict at the heart of the piece.”
In addition to Mr. Tavianini, the cast includes Leesa Beck, Justin Davanzo, Emma-Jane Huerta, Dalina Klan, Haley Klan, Sanford Jackson, McKenna Kline, Will Muse, Mircea Oprea, Jenna Scanlon, Tiffany Story, Johnny Waaler and Raymond Wallenthin.
Ms. Laris said the actors, who played characters from different countries in all walks of life, faced the challenge of creating unique accents.
“They’re so talented, so experienced,” she said. “They were able to take on the personalities and able to bring this whole sense of character to the stage. It’s just delightful to watch them all interact.”