Shotgun sets a vivacious vintage Mousetrap

The Mousetrap
Megan Trout is Mollie Ralston and Mick Mize is Giles Ralston in Shotgun Players’ production of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. Below: The cast of suspects includes (from left) Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, Alex Rodriguez as Mr. Paravincini, Nick Medina as Christopher Wren, Karen Offereins as Miss Casewell, Adam Magill as Detective Sergeant Trotter and David Sinaiko as Major Metcalf. Photos by Pak Han

Why is a good old murder mystery so damn satisfying and enjoyable? There’s something about mystery presented, red herrings chased, clues gathered and a culprit revealed that rarely ceases to please on some level, and there’s no better master of this from than Agatha Christie. I went through a Christie phase in middle and high school and still return to her books often as a treat.

Even though Christie’s most famous, play The Mousetrap, is the longest-running show of any kind in the world (the London production is in its 64th year, with more than 25,000 performances logged) and is performed by school and community theaters on a regular basis, I had never seen it. Nor had I heard one peep about whodunnit, which is really something for such a popular play

So when Berkeley’s Shotgun Players announced The Mousetrap as part of its season of women playwrights, I was thrilled at the prospect of at last seeing the play performed by an exciting, enterprising company.

I wasn’t disappointed – in Shotgun or Christie. They’re both at their reliable best.

From the British winter coziness of Mark Huesek’s guest house set and lights to the stitch-perfect 1950s costumes by Valera Coble, everything looks just right. Director Patrick Dooley’s affection for the play comes through in his straightforward approach to the play (there’s no sense of irony, nor is there the tang of overripe melodrama). There are wonderful flourishes of humor throughout the plays’ nearly 2 1/2 hours, but when the tension needs to intensify in Act 2, it does.

The Mousetrap

Dooley’s sturdy cast features wonderful turns by longtime company member Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, a gruff British matron and Megan Trout (also a company member) as Mollie Ralson, the nervous newlywed proprietor of a newly opened guest house. There’s a dance with caricature in both performances, but these wonderful actors keep the inner lives of the characters bubbling up in funny and sometimes surprising ways.

There’s abundant humor in Alex Rodriguez’s performance as the unexpected guest, Mr. Paravincini, a “foreigner” of unknown origin and Nick Medina’s jittery Christopher Wren. Wren has a brief flirtation (most likely not in Christie’s script) with Adam Magill’s Detective Sergeant Trotter that emerges as one of the evening’s funniest bits.

Christie gives us reason to suspect everyone on stage, which makes the ending all the more satisfying as it twists its way to resolution. But the real fun is watching everyone suspect everyone else. Especially paranoid is Mick Mize’s Giles, husband of Mollie, who was not where he said he would be the day a certain murder was committed. But then again, Mollie wasn’t where she was supposed to be either. The sense that this young marriage is going to endures dwindles as the play progresses.

Rounding out the list of suspects is David Sinaiko as the pipe-smoking Major Metcalf, a seemingly reasonable older gentleman but suspiciously not quite who he seems to be, and Karen Offereins as the enigmatic Miss Casewell, who has only just returned to England after a life abroad.

One murder happens before the play begins and one during, and I must say I was mightily disappointed to see the victim disappear from the cast. I’d like Christie to have done a Clue-like version with variations on who the murderer turns out to be. Based on this production, my favorite murderer would be the victim.

But Christie has a very specific ending for this Mousetrap, and it’s juicy and satisfying (though at intermission, the people in my row informally polled one another about who they thought had done it, and my theory proved to be true, thus demonstrating that my internal Miss Marple is alive and well). During the curtain call, the cast keeps the tradition alive by asking the audience to keep mum on the subject of the killer. But really, who’d want to spoil the fun?

And fun is what this production has to offer. In abundance.

Shotgun Players’ production of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie continues through Jan. 24 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit

Cutting Ball pumps energy into vivid Dream

Life Dream 1
Like father like son: King Basilio (David Sinaiko, left) and Prince Segismundo (Asher Sinaiko) square off as their armies face one another in the Cutting Ball Theater production of Life Is a Dream. Below: King Basilio (Sinaiko, center) is beloved by his nephew (Matthew Hannon, left) and niece (Grace Ng), who may be his heirs to the throne. Photos by Fiona McDougall

What a rare treat to have had two productions of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream on local stages this year. First there was California Shakespeare Theater’s production (read my review here), and now we have a brisk, streamlined version from Cutting Ball Theater and its resident playwright, Andrew Saito at the EXIT on Taylor.

Both productions feature extensively adapted versions of the original script, and each reflects the personalities of both the adaptors and the producing companies. Where Cal Shakes’ production benefited from the natural setting and the poetry of the stars overhead providing counterpoint to the poetry on stage, the Cutting Ball production uses Saito’s laser eye to whittle the bulky play down to its essence, and director Paige Rogers delivers a physically exuberant production that makes up in vitality what it might lack in emotional wallop.

From the very start, this 75-minute version of the Dream comes out swinging, or should I say clapping. The actors emerge in the their underwear and scale Michael Locher’s sturdy bleachers set. All the actors get dressed save Asher Sinaiko, who plays the imprisoned prince, Segismundo. He remains in his black T-shirt and boxer briefs for most of the show, until that defining moment when Segismundo, who has fulfilled the prophecies and revealed himself to the be the savage his father feared he’d be, learns from his mistakes and begins to act through wisdom rather than impulse.

Life Dream 2

There’s a percussive rhythm to the show provided by the actors (there’s lots of clapping, stomping and patty-cake-meets-drill-team choreography for the ensemble) and by Barry Dispenza behind the drum kit. By the final battle, the beat turns downright (upright) funky, and it’s fresh.

In fact, the whole show feels fresh. Part of that has to do with Saito’s elemental adaptation, which keeps the major plot points and characters and infuses some welcome humor and a whole lot of Yiddish (kvetch, schmo, putz). In the story, many swords are drawn, but on stage, swords take the form of kazoos. And when said kazoos are not being brandished, they are being played to herald the entrance of the king (David Sinaiko), who has decided it’s time to take his potentially dangerous son out of prison and let him rule the country.

The efficiency of the bleacher set means that Segismundo can go from prison (aka under the bleachers) to power (atop the bleachers) in seconds, and with the addition of a spiffy plaid jacket to his black underwear ensemble, he’s almost even human (costumes are by Courtney Flores. Then he starts throwing people out of windows and the dream of civilization and power ends, and he wakes up back in the prison tower.

One of the nice things about Saito’s adaptation is that it feels evenly weighted among the stories. There’s Segismundo and his father (in a lovely touch, David is father to 16-year-old Asher, who is making a mighty strong professional theater debut), but there’s also Rosaura (Sango Tajima) and her father, Clotaldo (Peter Warden), though she doesn’t know he’s her father. Rosaura, with the help of the stalwart (and funny) Clarin (Michael Wayne Turner III) is fixated on exacting revenge from Astolfo (Matthew Hannon), the arrogant royal who besmirched her virtue, but he’s fixated on seizing the throne, even if it means marrying his cousin, Estrella (Grace Ng), who doesn’t have nearly enough to do in this plot.

All this unspools and resolves very quickly, but we get the gist of the plot and its theme of life as a dream and death as an awakening, with everything temporary and constantly in transition. Emotionally, the production doesn’t cut too deep, although there is a doozy of a knock-down, drag-out fight between King Basilio and Segismundo that says a whole lot about the neglected son/absent father relationship.

These adaptations of Life Is a Dream have been grandly entertaining and admirable in their attempt to focus in on the core of the play’s beauty and power. But I think I’m ready for a big, messy, unwieldy version of a Dream – big enough to get lost in and beautiful enough to want to remain lost.

Pedron Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Nov. 1 in a Cutting Ball Theater production at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit