The mystery novel, that great niche of fiction, has no greater name to represent it than the late Agatha Christie. North Coast Repertory Theatre's The Hollow is a staging of a Christie-penned play that made its London debut in 1951 and is based on her book of the same name from five years earlier.
One change from the book is the disappearance of Hercule Poirot, a character so widely known that he's taken on a life of his own (and continues to be portrayed in film and television to this day, long after Christie's death in 1980). The diminutive and oh-so deductive Belgian detective was a bigger hit with the public than with his creator, who apparently grew to loathe the character and kept him alive in the pages of her stories for no other reason than his popularity among her readership.
The play falls perfectly into the subgenre of the English country-house drama, giving the play a firm sense of space as well of time, with the traditional premise of friends having come to the country. Whether one or more arrived with murder on their minds is not always clear but if not, someone is driven to that state within an act or two.
At the start of the play, set in 1940s postwar England, we meet Sir Henry Angkatell (William Welton), the gun-collecting patriarch of the household, speaking with his younger cousin Henrietta (Bayley Brown) as she finishes a sculpture just outside. There is also Sir Henry's somewhat daft but indomitably cheerful wife Lucy (an excellent Willi Welton), who may also be the most savvy observer here. The guests include cousin Edward Angkatell (Morgan Cox), as well as Midge Harvey (Kelsey Larson), still another cousin. Midge serves as a bit of a family outcast by refusing financial support and continuing to work in a dress shop, something the rest of the family finds (naturally) to be rather common. Edward also is the present owner of Ainswick, an estate remembered with wistful nostalgia for a since-downsized British Empire. And there's the fact that Midge and Edward are clearly in love with each other — see, that's how trouble starts brewing at country houses on just such weekends.
Last to arrive are the rather bumptious and bothersome Dr. John Cristow (Montel Vander Horck III) and his clearly unhappy wife Gerda (Sarah Traywick). John and Henrietta are clearly having an affair, adding to the intrigue. Tea and sandwiches are served, gin is poured, flourished gold cigarette cases are opened at turns in conversation and a butler and a maid come and go.
The Hollow may start off slowly but by midway it has worked up a good pace with strength from its sturdy cast. When the murder arrives, with the audience seeing the victim but not the shooter, we're engaged. Notable among the cast are the aforementioned Willi Welton, who has some of the best comic lines and brings some canny strength to the role, along with Vander Horck, as the doctor who's gotten himself into a predicament. Caroline McFarland turns up later in the play the pivotal role of Veronica Craye, a movie star with a new home down the way a bit. (Think she might have a past with Dr. Cristow, too? You're on the right track.) Finally, Scott Marcus and Tyler Egerer (of NCRT's It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play) respectively play the Scotland Yard inspector and sergeant in charge of investigating the murder. The two make good use of their stage time in the second act as they confer about motives and interview everyone in the household. They are wry representatives as outsiders from a different class. Like the rest of the cast, under the sharp direction of Calder Johnson, they help make The Hollows a top-notch example of its genre. So who needs Hercule Poirot on the case anyhow?
The Hollow plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Dec. 9, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, as well as an 8 p.m. show on Thursday, Dec. 8. For more information, call 444-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Spend the holiday with the Peanuts gang through Dec. 18 at Ferndale Repertory Theatre's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org. Bring the kids.
Dell'Arte kicks off its annual holiday tour at the Carlo Theatre on Friday, Nov. 25 with a North Coast take on Alice in Wonderland. Follow the White Rabbit to locations countywide through Dec. 18. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
Go big or go giant when Arcata Playhouse stages Jack and the Holiday Beans starting Thursday, Dec. 1. The family-friendly musical comedy runs through Dec. 10. Call 822-1575 or visit www. arcataplayhouse.org.
See what the kids are up to at Recycled Youth's The Ride. From Dec. 1-3, they're tackling honey bees, the Dakota Pipeline, prisons and gender with comedy, dance, music and more at the Mateel Community Center. Call 923-3368.