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THEATER REVIEW 'THE MOUSETRAP' : Strong Finisher : The Seaside Theater production weathers a shaky start and draws the audience into Agatha Christie's suspenseful story.


A quick telephone call to St. Martin's Theatre in London revealed that the longest-running play in history, Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap," began its 39th year, with the annual ritual of a whole new cast, on Nov. 26. Ticket prices range from 6 to 15 pounds.

But if you can't make it to London, you can catch "The Mousetrap" at the Seaside Theater. This is a mousetrap with a twist, although one we could do without.

The first act has been rewritten by director Craig A. Hane to depict a rehearsal. A new character has been added--a director (John Dell) who sits on the sidelines and gives advice. Actors wear a wild assortment of street clothes, no makeup, and there's no set. One character, an effete young man named Christopher Wren, is played by a middle-aged woman, which in the rehearsal scenario makes no sense at all.

The first act ends with a murder--during a blackout, with bloodcurdling screams. The lights come up for intermission; the "body" leaps off the floor, jokes with the director, and everyone goes offstage laughing. The casual atmosphere does not bode well for the rest of the play being much better.

The program informs us that the second act is the real performance and during a 15-minute intermission the set is transformed into the sitting room at Monkswell Manor, an English country guest house where hosts, guests, and a police sergeant are stranded by a snowstorm. One of them is a murderer. The actors are in costume and makeup--and even Christopher Wren, now wearing a thin mustache, has begun to seem believable, at least here and there.

Despite these drawbacks, the second act works; we are drawn into the suspense. The telephone lines are cut, the only pair of skis has been stolen, each character reflects on being the next victim. Much of Christie's expertise lies in her ability to make each character, in turn, seem the guilty one.

Hane has done a good job with pacing. There are several tight performances and some of the actors have authentic English accents and professional experience: Claire Marie Ghelardi as the guest-house hostess and Emma-Jane Huerta as an epicene guest. Alan Wells as Detective Sgt. Trotter was convincing, and contributed much to the atmosphere of suspense.

There's a genuine catharsis, probably because Christie follows bare-bones rules for writing a tragedy--including recognition of long-lost family members. It is interesting that the questionable rehearsal experiment does not completely undermine the second act. "The willing suspension of disbelief" upon which the power of the theater rests, can apparently be resurrected at intermission.


"The Mousetrap" by Agatha Christie, directed by Craig A. Hane. Playing though Dec. 8 at the Seaside Theatre Company, 5141 Carpinteria Ave., Carpinteria. Tickets are $5 Thursday night and Saturday matinee; $6 Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. For information, call 805-684-6380.


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