Lit­tle gray cells on the radio 

Res­i­dent Ensem­ble Play­ers present Agatha Christie’s The Poirot Mysteries’

In
4 minute read
Capturing Christie’s essence: playwright and director Michael Gotch (left) and Lee E. Ernst as Hercule Poirot. (Image courtesy of REP.)
Capturing Christie’s essence: playwright and director Michael Gotch (left) and Lee E. Ernst as Hercule Poirot. (Image courtesy of REP.)

To close out its season of radio dramas, Resident Ensemble Players (REP) again goes book-to-audio with a double bill, The Poirot Mysteries. And as he did with the company’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Michael Gotch has adapted and directed—this time two short stories by Agatha Christie become stylish hour-long audio presentations.

Both The King of Clubs and The Cornish Mystery mark early appearances of Christie’s celebrated sleuth Hercule Poirot, whom she endowed with fastidious tics, distinctive sartorial style (spats and formal suits), and a moustache as iconic as his style of detection. The character has become a film staple, beloved of actors from Charles Laughton (the first, onstage) to David Suchet’s recent masterful portrayals, and he appears in more than 80 Christie works, best-sellers in a literary oeuvre outsold only by the Bible.

Authorial leaps

Gotch’s adaptations feature this entire (and excellent) resident company in multiple roles, but the leads carry over both stories. Well-tuned and good-humored, Lee E. Ernst is Poirot, the fussy, opinionated Belgian detective who solves crimes through the genius of his “little gray cells.” The detective’s faithful sidekick and chronicler—think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—is played with good-natured, unflappable persistence by Stephen Pelinski. Unlike some duos, these actors portray the relationship as one of bonhomie and friendly rivalry.

In crafting the dramas, Gotch takes several authorial leaps, like setting The King of Clubs (written in 1923) in 1934 and thus using some Christie character details from later stories; employing “news flashes” (he’s the strident newsman); and framing each tale with an introduction by Hastings.

The stories

The King of Clubs was Christie’s third short story, published in both London (The Sketch) and America (The Blue Book Magazine). Poirot is enlisted by Prince Paul of Maurania (Mic Matarrese) to solve a murder that involves the Prince’s fiancée, American actress Valerie Saintclair (Elizabeth Heflin). The mystery opens on a “dark and rainy night” in an English country cottage, where the bourgeois Oglander family is playing bridge and bickering. Mrs. Oglander (Kathleen Pirkl Tague) and her impatient son Freddie (René Thornton Jr.) berate daughter Millicent (Heflin) for slowing down the game, while Mr. Oglander (Hassan El-Amin) vainly tries to keep the peace. When the window is blown open and a woman’s bloody face appears crying “Murder!” the family is startled to discover that it’s the famous actress herself who says she’s just witnessed a crime.

The Cornish Mystery (also from 1923 and published in the same magazines) sees Poirot and Hastings (who is suffering from hiccups) visited by Mrs. Hermione Pengelley (Pirkl Tague), whom they high-handedly dismiss as a provincial. The woman fears that her dentist husband Edward (El-Amin) is poisoning her, though as she has no proof, Poirot and Hastings feel she’s overreacting. But the next morning, they reluctantly go to Cornwall and discover that Poirot has made one of the few errors in his illustrious career. Mrs. Pengelley is dead, and her husband is the prime suspect. But did he kill her?

As always, Poirot gathers seemingly inconsequential clues to Hastings’s increasing befuddlement, and revealing more of either plot would constitute spoilers, though each story features an unusual ending. For both dramas, composer Ryan Touhey provides effective, stylish original music, and sound designer Eileen Smitheimer again works Foley-effects radio magic. And adjunct to the productions, the University of Delaware Special Collections & Museums has created a spiffy online exhibition entitled (no surprise) Agatha Christie’s Poirot filled with great graphics and fascinating source material.

Literary essence

Christie was a member of The Detection Club, a fellowship of legendary British writers founded in 1930, and was its president for 19 years (1957-1976). Like all the club members, she was a serious author whose tool might be crime but whose métier was literature. An increasing body of Christie scholarship looks at her work not only as escapist “cozy” fiction (though she’s not actually all that “cozy”) but also for social commentary and incisive portraits of her time and society.

In his adaptation of Dracula, Gotch captured the novel’s literary essence, honoring the author’s serious intentions as well as Stoker’s grasp of the delicious attraction of horror. These early Christie stories are not as finely developed as some of her later writing, so in his attractive adaptations, Gotch taps into a more zippy, zingy style. But even here are found the first threads of the author’s constantly unfolding narrative tapestry. In The King of Clubs, Christie posits the theme she spent the ensuing decades exploring: “Life is always more dangerous than art.”

Image description: Side-by-side photos of playwright and director Michael Gotch and actor Lee E. Ernst, two white men with short gray beards, wearing headsets for recording. Gotch is grinning and Ernst is speaking.

What, When, Where

The Poirot Mysteries: The King of Clubs and The Cornish Mystery. By Agatha Christie; adapted and directed by Michael Gotch, for the Resident Ensemble Players. Both productions are streaming for free through Friday, May 21, 2021 at rep.udel.edu.

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