The moment I spotted David Cerda’s name in the cast of The Mousetrap at Court Theatre, I knew something was up. Cerda, who is artistic director, resident playwright and co-founder of Chicago’s Hell in a Handbag Productions, is an actor unlike any other on the Chicago stage. Playing many of his roles in drag — his portrayal of Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds was electric — Cerda turns emoting into an art form: camp as entryway to a character’s psyche.
Cerda’s capable castmates include the usual suspects at Court: the luminous Kate Fry; the deadpan Allen Gilmore; the versatile Alex Goodrich; the chameleonic Erik Hellman. They are joined by Court newcomers Tina Muñoz Pandya, Lyonel Reneau and Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann. Old hands or new, the performers play unusual suspects in Agatha Christie’s chestnut, The Mousetrap. Christie’s murder mystery is the longest continuously running play in the history of commercial Western theater, having opened in London in 1952 and still going, a theatrical treading of the boards that surely has worn down those boards.
What distinguishes Cerda’s acting and informs that of his castmates under Sean Graney’s direction is that they play their parts with — oxymoron alert! — nuanced exaggeration. Theatergoers laugh at characters who appear to be stereotypes, only to discovery messy emotions beneath the surface, adding a whole new element of surprise to this whodunnit.
The plot is simple, with bloody undertones. Newishly wed Mollie and Giles Ralson (Fry and Gilmore) nervously await their first guests at Monkswell Manor, the grand opening complicated by an epic snowstorm. Arnel Sancianco’s scenic design sets the tone. A two-story bookcase — with no library ladder in sight, most of the books are beyond reach — dwarfs the too small gothic doorways, transforming them into mouseholes for entrances and exits. The stone fireplace emits little heat, causing the characters to try to warm their hands at a narrow radiator set at the angled midpoint of the stage. Their efforts at hand warming are futile, but the spot works nicely for soliloquies.
A radio (effective sound design by Kevin O’Donnell) broadcasts news of a murder as the Ralsons finish their preparations and debate their responsibilities in their joint enterprise. The first guest to arrive is Christopher Wren (Goodrich), not the Christopher Wren but so named to inspire a career in architecture. In contrast to the somber hues of the manor, the guests dress with exuberance (Alison Siple, flexing her costume design muscles). Swift on Wren’s heels comes Mrs. Boyle (Hoerdemann), the personification of disagreeableness. Next in are Major Metcalf (Reneau), followed by Miss Casewell (Pandya). Mr. Paravicini (Cerda) arrives sans booking, saying that his car overturned in a snowdrift. Indeed, at that point, they are all snowed in until the following day, when Detective Sergeant Trotter (Hellman) skis in through a window to inform the disparate and somewhat grumpy guests that the murdered woman once lived nearby and with her farmer husband fostered and abused children, leading to the death of a child.
Christie based the play, which she first wrote for radio as Three Blind Mice, on a tragedy from the headlines of 1945, when foster parents abused their charges, leading to the death of a 12-year-old boy. The gruesome details can be found at A Closer Look: Beyond Gender and Genre. For all of Christie’s playful red herrings, her work is deadly serious.
With a subtext this heavy, Graney’s choice to harness Cerda’s camp begins to make twisted sense. Theatergoers will find plenty to laugh at in The Mousetrap, but those wisecracks may open into darker truths.
Through February 16, 2020
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (free parking for evening performances in adjacent garage)
Tickets $37.50–$84 (student discounts) at (773) 753-4472 or Court Theatre
Photos: Michael Brosilow