'The Mousetrap'

Aficianados of the thriller/murder mystery genre have a chance to savor Dame Agatha Christie's cunningly constructed and totally diverting play "The Mousetrap," now running at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland (191 A St.) through Feb. 28.

The play grew out of two guises — a short radio play called "Three Blind Mice" in honor of Queen Mary, the consort of King George V, itself based on a short story of the same name that concerned the infamous death of an 11-year-old boy, one of three children in the foster care of a Shropshire farmer and his wife.

A woman is murdered in London, and at the scene of the crime is found a notebook listing two addresses — 24 Culver Street, Paddington, where the murder occurred, and Monkswell Manor in Berkshire that has just opened as a guest house under the owner/management of a young lovey-dovey couple, Mollie and Giles Ralston. Attached to the body was a cryptic message "This is the first," and below was a drawing of three little mice and a bar of music, the tune of the nursery rhyme:

Three blind mice, Three blind mice

See how they run, See how they run

They all ran after the farmer's wife

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife

Christie serves up a fine kettle of fish, particularly red herrings, and, as expected, gives a twist to the tale at the end.

Back at the manor, the guests arrive in worsening winter weather, with heavy snow and drifts — Christopher Wren, an architect, a rather wild-looking long-haired neurotic young man; Mrs. Boyle, carping and critical and always close to the boil; Major Metcalf, very military in manner and bearing; and Miss Casewell, a strange, aloof, masculine woman. Then there is an unexpected guest, a Mr. Paravicini, who seems to affect a foreign accent and artificially age himself with make-up. His Rolls Royce had ploughed into a snowdrift.

This odd assembly may be safe from the storms but then Detective Sergeant Trotter arrives on skis from the Berkshire police to protect them from what Scotland Yard fears may be an imminent murder attempt.

Doug Ham designed the impressive Great Hall at Monkswell Manor, attractively furnished period-style, whose large windows look upon a snowy landscape. He also directs the play, for which he has a special affection, having previously directed it on the 30th and 50th anniversaries of the London production, in northern California.

Ham is well served by the talented cast of eight, who individually respond to his expertise and successfully boggle, bemuse, and bewilder the playgoer. Barbara Rosen, interestingly born in London, complains to great and genteel effect as Brs. Boyle; Mark Barsekian as Christopher Wren, in his debut performance at OSW, is flamboyantly outrageous and funny; Terry Kolkey, with his long white scarf, is entertainingly mysterious; and Richard Heller as Major Metcalf, with his meerschaum pipe, is surely the most solid character around.

Red-headed Sophia Palosaari as Mollie Ralston and Joel Handley as her husband Giles are an attractive natural couple that play off one another delightfully until suspicion tears them asunder. As Miss Casewell, Dara Goldman is commandingly cool and touching in her tears. Last, but not least, is Sam King as Detective Sergeant Trotter, who in his 11th show at OSW, gives a strong performance in his relentless quest for the truth.

"The Mousetrap" has a legendary longevity and continues to make theatrical history. The London production is in its 58th year with more than 26,000 continuous performances, and is taking bookings for April 2010. Moreover, it was staged in Toronto, Canada, in August 1977 and marked off more than 9,000 performances before closing in January 2004.

Who'd have thought murder could be such fun? Go see "The Mousetrap" at Oregon Stage Works. Just don't let the cat out of the bag. It plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays through Feb. 28. Call 541-482-2334 or visit www.oregonstageworks.org.

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