The Mousetrap As the lights dimmed for the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of The Mousetrap - based on Agatha Christie's mystery novel - I already knew whodunnit. But don't be fooled into thinking that I possess superhuman powers of deduction or anything. I was in a high-school production of the play some 20 years ago. (Fine. Twenty-three years ago. Happy, Mom?)

So I'm not exactly fit to comment on how successfully Christie's murderous plot plays itself out here. Yet my familiarity with the story didn't lessen my enjoyment of CAST's endeavor in the slightest. Quite the contrary: I loved this production, because the vigor with which the Mousetrap ensemble played their comically shady characters was positively exhilarating.

Their work revealed the freshness and spontaneity and performance joy that seemed to be missing from the theatre's recent tackling of The King & I, and as a major CAST fan, I couldn't be more delighted; the 2006 season may have (for me) opened on a wobbly note, but The Mousetrap is as assured and polished - and laugh-out-loud funny - as you could possibly want.

The show centers not so much on a murder as an impending murder. A quintet of boarders arrive at the newly opened manor inn of British proprietors Giles and Mollie Ralston (Benjamin Cole and Allison Hendrix), and are soon joined by Detective Sergeant Trotter (Paul Luoma), who has reason to believe that one of the manor's seven denizens will be the next victim of an area killer. But who? Giles or Mollie? The flamboyantly childish architect Christopher Wren (Jeffrey Fauver)? The stately, steely Mrs. Boyle (Nicole Horton)? The pleasantly stoic Major Metcalf (Rob Engelson)? The mannishly rigid Miss Casewell (Cassandra Marie Nuss)? The heavily accented mystery guest, Mr. Paravacini (Don Hepner)?

Eventually, of course, a murder does take place, but it's a fair guess that the CAST audience would have a marvelous time at The Mousetrap even if Sergeant Trotter's hunch proved incorrect - the time spent in this ensemble's company is, from the beginning, almost ridiculously enjoyable.

A lion's share of the credit for this goes to director Michael Oberfield, whose staging is subtly splendid. He's brilliant at punctuating scenes with a noise or gesture that reveals personality with a light comedic flourish; the weary clunk! of Mrs. Boyle dropping her suitcase, or Miss Casewell's awkward stance at the fireplace, almost provides more insight into Christie's characters than her dialogue does. Oberfield, as he did with New Ground Theatre's Scotland Road, also pulls off ticklish effects with sound - the show opens with an appropriately eerie version of "Three Blind Mice," and the production's on-stage radio is used spectacularly, especially when details of a local killing are perfectly timed with the revelation of similar details within the manor's living-room setting.

The director's work is continually effective - the timing of the performers' entrances and exits, especially, could hardly be bettered - and matched by the strength of his cast. Hendrix is radiant and fiercely believable as the frazzled Mollie, and she's beautifully paired against Cole, whose prissy British twerp is a witheringly funny caricature, revealing Cole to be a nutty, inspired comedian. Engelson and Nuss are marvelously low-key - they make sensational Christie suspects, as they keep you guessing as to the motivations beneath their poker faces - and Horton's dry imperiousness makes her a deadpan delight. Luoma's boyish Trotter is suitably, engagingly melodramatic; his frustration at how his dire pronouncements are so routinely ignored is a terrific running gag. Hepner's Paravicini, despite the actor stumbling over his Italian accent, holds your attention by acting more suspicious than he probably should, and comic fireworks are provided by Fauver, so hilarious yet oddly endearing that his Christopher Wren is, from the start, obviously guilty - of walking off with his scenes.

I can't imagine being more entertained by this production even if I didn't know how Christie's splendidly tricky contraption would resolve itself. So if you, too, know how The Mousetrap ends, don't let that prevent you from catching CAST's stage version - the show's presentation, like its mysterious evil-doer, is a real killer.


For tickets, call (563) 242-6760.

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