Volume 15, Issue 75  |  September 19, 2023SubscribeAdvertise

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Murder (and more) on the Links

By Nancy Carpenter

This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.

The Laguna Playhouse has been around for more than 100 years. You’d think by now there would be very little to report. For me, it was a matter of where to begin.

An opportunity to speak with David Ellenstein was the perfect starting point. The Laguna Playhouse board of directors recently named him artistic director, and that is no surprise. For nearly five decades, Ellenstein has carried his talents and the traditions of his theatrical family to more than 300 productions staged across the country.

For us, he has been a familiar fixture in a variety of capacities since the mid-‘90s, and artistic director at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach since 2003. There, he helmed more than 60 productions, including well-known plays (Travels with My Aunt and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), translations (The Father) and several world premieres (Becoming Cuba and Words by Ira Gershwin). When asked, Ellenstein wisely hesitated to say he has a favorite. “I love both old and new genres, drama, comedy and anything in between, the whole field of entertainment. And I always like to include a musical in every season.”

If his face is familiar, it’s because he also acts. Locals might remember him as Einstein in the LP’s staging of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. He has performed readings, including Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. He’s found time to be cast in more than two dozen film and television roles. Versatility has worked for him.

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Photos by Aaron Rumley

(L-R) Jessica Mosher, Matthew Salazar-Thompson, Kim Morgan-Dean, Omri Schein, Brian Mackey and Jennifer Erdmann

 The board also announced the appointment of Bill Kerlin, an expert in the business side of things including finance, marketing and sales. For the last 12 years, he was managing director at North Coast, so he and Ellenstein are no strangers. Kerlin’s experience is not limited to live theater entertainment. He has worked with diverse companies focused on retirement strategies and insurance, and a performing arts company – Camposition – involved in artistic activism, interactive outreach programs and professional development training. While that all sounds less glamorous, financial savvy and the breadth of his hands-on knowledge is critical to theatrical success.

The two men are not abandoning their commitment to North Coast and that makes this newsworthy. They came up with the idea of leveraging and applying what they have done so well together and “transfer” that success – that production – to another venue. Thus, they create a financially and geographically feasible synergy that complements more than one organization and audience.

That venue is Laguna Playhouse.

“Both Bill and I are excited at being at LB,” he said. “We are looking forward to getting to know everyone in the community.”

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 (L-R) Kim Morgan Dean, Omri Schein and Brian Mackey 

And that success: Under their watchful eyes, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links premiered at North Coast to become their longest and highest grossing non-musical production in their 41-season history. Why not take the show up the road to the Laguna Playhouse for a run from May 31 through June 18? This could be their perfect win-win example of what can happen when people, theatrical venues, communities and commitment come together.

Let’s look at the logistics. Typical to theater, once the final curtain drops and the applause dies, the cast has a closing night party, stages are struck, everything is packed up and everyone goes home. But what if backdrops and props are moved to another location? Even if that stage is bigger (as it is in this case), it’s a matter of reassembling and repositioning what they already have. According to Ellenstein, Scene Designer Marty Burnett is the “Staff Wizard” when it comes to staging, particularly when you consider the action occurs in England and France, on trains and boats, in cars and speakeasies and bedrooms, and of course, on the links. Burnett created a playground that is “colorful, bright and funny.” Pop-up panels allow props to enter and exit as seamlessly as the actors themselves. Indeed, Burnett is a wizard.

As for the cast of six, their costumes have already been fitted. They know their lines, their cues and each other. They were all-in for another run less than an hour away.

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 (L-R) Jennifer Erdmann, Jessica Mosher, Kim Morgan Dean and Omri Schein

For those of you familiar with Christie’s iconic detective Hercule Poirot and plots with spiraling numbers of suspects, you might wonder how six people can carry off a masterful whodunit with 24 speaking roles. Start with the two main leads played by Omri Schein as Poirot himself and Kim Morgan Dean as Captain Hastings. Yes, Poirot’s righthand is cast as a woman dressed smartly in a man’s dapper suit.

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That leaves the 22 remaining roles to Jessica Mosher, Matthew Salazar-Thompson, Brian Mackey and Jennifer Erdmann. None of the madcap is hidden. Role-switching is in plain sight for the audience to enjoy, the differentiators reduced to a change of anything from hat, beard, wig, or accent to something more subtle such as a shift in the character’s stance. This theatrical style and Christie’s signature escalating pace give a freeform feeling while not losing the audience.

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 (L-R) Brian Mackey, Matthew Salazar-Thompson, Jennifer Erdmann, Kim Morgan Dean, Jessica Mosher and Omri Schein

There wasn’t time to interview all the cast members, but Omri Schein and I did connect and talk about his debut role as Hercule Poirot. Growing up, Schein’s favorite authors were Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. By 22, he’d read the complete set of Christie books, so he knows his character. We spent a few minutes discussing the screen actors who have been cast as Poirot. That can be a double-edged sword, studying how and what they did, and inevitably, drawing comparisons and creating internal angst. Schein avoided that trap. His interpretation is fresh. “I think we have done something that is feel-good, fun and frenetic. But the element of mystery is still there. It’s a constant.”

He and Ellenstein have worked together when they co-wrote The Remarkable Mr. Holmes that debuted at North Coast. Schein also acknowledged his fellow cast members. “They made it possible to meet the challenges of maintaining this level of fun before a live audience.” This is not a one-man production.

Schein gave a shout-out to Writer/Director Stephen Dietz when he acknowledged if anyone is capable of “suspending disbelief,” he is. Dietz’ 30-plus stage credits are too numerous to list here, but a few stand out. Originals include Inventing Van Gogh, On Clover Road, and most recently, How a Boy Falls. Adaptations include two of Bram Stoker’s Dracula stories and Paragon Springs from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. As for film, he can add the not-yet-released What Happens Later starring Meg Ryan and David Duchovny to his credits. Dietz’ career is a conundrum: He is considered one of the most prolific and widely produced American playwrights whose name few people recognize.

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 Kim Morgan Dean and Omri Schein

With this comic spin, I had to ask Ellenstein, will an Agatha Christie purist accept this approach, particularly when you consider Murder on the Links is one of her earliest, lesser-known works? This is only the second novel in which Poirot appears. 

“The Long Beach Playhouse is one year older than the novel,” Ellenstein said. It was first published as a four-part monthly serial from December 1922 to March 1923 before it was issued as a book in May of that year.

Ellenstein gave Dietz credit for taking lengthy dialogue typical of Agatha Christie and making it work on stage without losing its original spirit.

Don’t waste time googling: Hercule Poirot debuted in 1920 in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie stacked up bodies in exotic locales and kept Poirot busy for a total of 39 novels. He continues to reappear in works by other authors, but many of the originals are coming into public domain. Expect to see more theatrical adaptations involving Christie’s clever, droll and obsession-driven detective in the coming years.

A play can’t happen without behind-the-scenes talent. Eliza Benzoni’s period-piece costumes have a film noir look. Peter Herman is in charge of hair and all those wigs and beards. Matt Novotny oversees lighting. Mary Michelle Miner is production stage director and Property Designer Rachel Hengst manages all the props that aren’t nailed down. As for music, Robertson Witmer’s compositions mirror the spirit of the 1920s. Apologies if I missed someone.

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 (L-R) Kim Morgan Dean and Jessica Mosher

Murder on the Links has not one but two dead bodies found, of course, on a golf course, this one in France. The first heartlessly stabbed victim is Detective Poirot’s client wearing a noticeably oversized overcoat. A second fatality is soon discovered, the modus operandi the same. Let the mystery and the detecting begin.

What a masterful way to end the season, which means another must happen. Ellenstein’s at-least-one-musical selection is Ain’t Misbehavin’. As for plays, Holmes & Watson echoes the spirit of Christie’s beloved Poirot with a British flair. The Rainmaker, set against the hardships of a drought, is familiar to many. For a lesser-known drama of survival and resiliency, be sure to see A Shayna Maidel. The Angel Next Door, a beloved screwball comedy, and Tartuffe, a French classic by Moliere, will be staged at both North Coast Theatre and Laguna Playhouse. 

Check the Laguna Playhouse website by clicking here for the schedule, as well as other events, ticketing, donation and volunteer opportunities, and more.

The cast and crew look forward to confounding and entertaining all of you at Murder on the Links.

This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.

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