The Director's Notes in the playbill of Threshold Repertory Theatre's The Mousetrap lead one to expect a cold, dark, and foreboding mystery from the get-go. It speaks of hidden secrets, the dangers of being locked up with complete strangers, and of being forced to face your past in an unexpected light.
So when this Agatha Christie murder-mystery begins with more slapstick humor than gloom and doom, it's easy to forget that something wicked does, indeed, this way come.
The setting is an English manor house in the late 1940s, and the set of this small, studio theater brings that immediately to life. There are tiny touches — a half-suit of arms, a family crest, antique ashtrays — that scream Britain, and the décor is on point.
The characters are introduced in rapid succession: Mollie and Giles Ralston, newlyweds opening up their home as a guest house; Christopher Wren, their small and effete first guest; Mirst Boyle and Major Metcalf; and Miss Casewell and Mr. Paravincini. They are caricatures, reminiscent of Professor Plum in the drawing room, and all guests of this snowbound manor. The laugh of Nat Jones as the foreigner Paravincini is contagious, and the tiny Christopher Wren (Miles Boinest) is, simply put, adorable. John Aguilar as Giles Ralston oozes British smarm.
They all join together in this guest house, tip-toeing around big personalities and even bigger prejudices, until we learn that a murderer is afoot. The challenges faced by the cast of The Mousetrap are inherent in the studio space itself. Small, intimate theaters can be wonderful. They can be warm and cozy. They can draw you in, make you feel part of the story. They can also highlight every flaw. Every misplaced bobby-pin in a well-sprayed hairdo. Every slightly flubbed line.
It's easy to over-project in a small studio space. Much of the first act felt this way, as if first night jitters and a comfort with larger stages had the cast shouting instead of talking, emoting so much I sometimes flinched. Perhaps it was my fault. I sat in the front row, on the side, near a writing desk, and I often felt as though a cast member was about to take a seat on my lap. But the studio space can also be a godsend, forcing intimacy and teamwork, and this was evident in The Mousetrap.
The cast was small, and the blocking beautifully choreographed. Navigating the stage furniture, including a chair that didn't want to stay on its feet, required grace and precision. The cast danced around the stage and each other, through doors on either end of the theater, and not once was there a crash, a stumble. This was a feat in and of itself.
The second half of the play was quieter, tenser, and full of tender moments and striking confessions. I very much preferred it. Tori Vaughn as Mollie Ralston carries Act 2 beautifully. She is quiet and elegant, dignified and distraught.
My only complaint with the show is this: when the characters lit cigarettes onstage, I found myself drawn out of the story, contemplating the awkward way they held matches and ashtrays and how they inhaled but didn't inhale. The smell of smoke was a distraction, though I imagine it was meant to provide authenticity. People in the 40s smoked a lot, particularly when upset. It made sense in that respect, but felt anachronistic in our own times, and thus was disengaging.
Regardless, I walked out of the Threshold Repertory Theatre happy. I enjoyed the show, enjoyed the laughs, and when push came to shove and an entire scene depended on the strength of a single scream, Tori Vaughn was there to deliver.