Cara Moretto, Tom Walljasper, and Kyle DeFauw in Murder on the Orient Express

Mysteries should surprise you. Murder on the Orient Express, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's current offering, did so for me in … well, surprising ways.

First: It's not a musical, as most of this theatre's productions are. The biggest revelation for me would come later in this quirky show helmed by Corinne Johnson, longtime director and former St. Ambrose University theatre professor (and a fine actor herself). Most of the prolific Agatha Christie's novels feature her legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, as does the one this 2017 play is based on. The 1934 book has been adapted for both the silver screen and the small screen twice, and now for the stage by the also-prolific playwright Ken Ludwig, whose Web site asserts that this play is "the most highly produced comedy-mystery in the world." And that phrase reveals what surprised me the most.

Before I see any production, I keep myself innocent of particulars – I even avoid glancing at the program, because I like surprises. Here, though, I wish I'd known going in that it was a "comedy-mystery," because it took a while during the January 18 preview to realize it was supposed to be funny. At first, the script was straightforward, a bit dry, with a few mild, refined quips. Some characters brought in broad comedy. Then, at times in the second act, it turned up the wacky factor to near-parody levels. This slightly off-kilter adaptation might be appreciated most by those who already knew the story well. However, as often happens, the actors' skill makes an unconventional script enjoyable. The cast is packed with local theatre royalty, plus a few faces new to me (but not to the stage) whom I'm hoping to see again.

Quinnie Rodman, Shelley Walljasper, Tom Walljasper, Kim Vanderginst, and Micah Weese in Murder on the Orient Excpress

Tom Walljasper exhibits Poirot's defining traits marvelously – dapper, persnickety, and scandalously fond of himself. Nevertheless, Walljasper made me quite fond of this charming yet bombastic Belgian. Kyle DeFauw portrays Poirot's friend Monsieur Bouc, the railroad exec who gets the detective a berth on the fateful train after his travel plans fell through. DeFauw plays the part convincingly older than others I've seen him in, exuding an appealing, expansive demeanor. And Micah Weese amusingly enacts a waiter in the first scene and goes on to play the morose conductor Michel, a frequent presence in the cars where the action takes place.

Because after one weather-related accident resulting from a snowdrift, et voilà – a classic mystery story element is unlocked: Everyone involved, including the murderer and potential victims, are unable to flee the scene. Ludwig wisely trimmed the novel's captive cluster of suspects from 12 to eight. These passengers, who are the wealthy or the attendants thereto, have ethnic roots in a variety of European soils, with a few Yanks tossed in. One is the flirty and self-involved Mrs. Hubbard, enacted by Kimberly (Kurtenbach) VanDerGinst. She flaunts an utterly exquisite Minnesota accent and treats everyone to a burst of Broadway-style song – an oblivious "ugly American" tourist. Another is Ratchett, who alternately pesters and threatens Poirot. Tristan Layne Tapscott plays this crass bully to a T – as in “Tony,” his similarly shady character in Circa '21's 2022 musical Disaster! Bear Manescalchi portrays Ratchett's flunky McQueen with just enough obsequiousness – cowed by his boss, but when he's stirred, showing a temper.

On to the continentals. Mary (the versatile Savannah Bay Strandin) is a typically English rosebud, sweet and refined. Tapscott plays another Brit, the often blustery Colonel Arbuthnot. Quinnie Rodman takes the part of Greta, a nervous but winning and genial Swede; Rodman is one of my favorite area performers, and I was glad to see her again. Greta is accompanying Princess Dragomiroff, a Russian exile portrayed by Shelley Walljasper, who gives the role her customary verve and spark. Another royal, the refined Hungarian Countess Elena, is assayed by Cara Moretto in a welcome return to this stage. The murder takes place in a locked compartment coach – which convention, paradoxically, unlocks another classic mystery-tale element.

(back row) Micah Weese, Kyle DeFauw; (middle row) Shelley Walljasper, Cara Moretto, Bear Manescalchi, Savannah Bay Strandin, Tom Walljasper; (front row) Quinnie Rodman, Kimberly VanDerGinst, and Tristan Layne Tapscott in Murder on the Orient Express

Technically, the production is smooth and lovely. Projections designed by Khalil Hacker provide the "wow" factor – a screen above the set shows expertly composed flashbacks and insert shots, appropriately in black-and-white old-school cinematic style. (I wish the program had credited the actors in the filmed prologue. Mystery lady whose face we saw: You were wonderful!) Also, scenic designer and artist Becky Meissen scores again. The main set piece – a royal-blue, brown, and gold railroad car, with cabins along one side and a dining space on the other – was beautifully Art Deco … and clearly very heavy, being oft flipped by the stalwart stage crew.

It's no mystery that Poirot does his world-famous thing throughout – interrogating, expounding on how each clue is relevant, capped with a soliloquy on how he solved the crime. Final classic-mystery-story achievement unlocked! The solution, of course, is surprising. As for the Midwestern-ized chicken cordon bleu of Circa '21's Murder on the Orient Express – c'est magnifique! I left the theatre satisfied, and I deduce that you will, too.


Murder on the Orient Express runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island IL) through March 2, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 and visiting

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