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That's one sinister minister:
Nikos Valance joins Christine Karl on a trip down the Nile
(Photo by Scott Wynn)
Agatha Christie has a mountain of best-selling thrillers and several wildly popular plays to back up the claim that she's one of the greatest mystery writers of all time. But though her popularity has withstood the test of time, the fact is that her works don't seem terribly sophisticated by modern standards. Murder on the Nile, Pulse Ensemble Theatre's current Christie offering, is full of melodrama and unresolved subplots, and the ending of the play is wrapped up with pages of exposition; it is also an enjoyable, often hilarious, and genuinely puzzling whodunit. Director Alexa Kelly and the company are smart enough to play to the strengths of the piece, and the result is a show full of thrills and laughs.

Murder on the Nile is very cleverly introduced as if it were a screening of an old film. The fearsome title is splashed across a projection screen while a dramatic score plays in the background; then the screen lifts to show Zhanna Gurvich's breathtaking set. We're in the "observation saloon" of a paddle steamer, and here all of the play's action is to take place. Nine passengers board the craft, which is heading down the Nile; not all will return, of course. There is the hysterical and bigoted old Englishwoman and her wonder-struck niece, the malcontented gentleman, the foreign doctor, the priest, the glamorous society girl and her handsome new husband, the French maid, and a crazy woman obsessed with the society girl's husband. Quite a charming little group and, at various times, each of them seems quite capable of murder.

Though the play is chiefly concerned with the soap opera-like shenanigans of its characters, Christie does find creative ways to touch on some sociopolitical issues--notably, the relationship between the wealthy and the working class. One of the characters is a devout student of communism, another tells a sad tale of worker exploitation in his homeland, and the priest blithely guilts his rich fellow passengers into funding his charity. Christie offers detours into the psyches of the characters that are never explored deeply, but she does have two or three astute social comments to make, and at least she isn't heavy handed about doing so.

To reveal the details of the plot of Murder on the Nile plot would spoil the fun; suffice it to say that someone gets killed and then everyone else goes about making accusations and looking suspicious until the murderer is at last found out. You probably won't figure out whodunit before it's revealed, though no doubt you will think you have it figured out (everyone always does). The play and the performers do an excellent job of throwing us off the trail several times.

Even more rewarding than the tricky plot is the humor of the play. Certainly, it wasn't all intentional on Christie's part, but Pulse Ensemble seems content to play the more ridiculous aspects of the murder mystery genre for laughs. The cast does a superb job of making the melodrama funny without ever letting it turn into camp. Marianne Matthews, as a woman stalking her former lover, accomplishes this balancing act particularly well; every word that comes out of her drunken anti-hero's mouth is a laugh riot. Nikos Valance, as the priest who leads a makeshift investigation, works in perfect counterpoint to Matthews.

Watching Murder on the Nile is a bit like taking part in one of those murder mystery parties. This is an engaging, surprising, delightfully absurd evening of entertainment.

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