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Thirsty for a mystery? Sip some ‘Black Coffee’

Thursday, Mar. 27 | By Constance Lyons
Actors rehearse a scene for Fauquier Community Theatre's production of “Black Coffee” by Agatha Christie. The play will have seven performances, including two matinees during its run at the Vint Hill Theatre.
Photo by Adam Goings
Who slipped the poison into Sir Claud Amory’s coffee? It seems that the likely suspect is his uptight, angst-ridden daughter in law, Lucia. After all, she is Italian, isn’t she? And we all know what they’re like. Besides, someone spotted her palming a handful of pills.

Or is it her husband, who is desperate to amass enough money to make Lucia happy? Or Sir Claud’s secretary, suave, urbane, with carefully slicked back hair? Surely not the impeccable butler, Tredwell? But then, the butler so often “did it.”

“Black Coffee” was Agatha Christie’s first play. First produced in 1930, it enjoyed a modest success, both with the critics and the public. It also was the start of a second career for her as a playwright. Anchored by Christie’s most famous character, Hercule Poirot, the plot revolves around the theft of a valuable formula (for the atom bomb!) stolen from the safe of Sir Claud, a wealthy inventor. Nobody much likes him, and for various reasons, everybody would love to get their hands on his money.

The murder happens on stage, right before the eyes of the audience; it takes an agile eye to spot the moment when the poison is slipped into the fatal cup of coffee.

Fauquier Community Theatre’s production succeeds on every level, starting with the script, which is funny and fast paced. It points gentle fun at British foibles like suspicion of foreigners, especially the Italians and French (mistakenly, since Poirot is Belgian.) And it is a quadruple triumph for Timothy Bambara, theater arts director at Liberty High School, who not only directed but also designed the lighting, the sound, and the set.

Mystery lovers have an insatiable appetite for stories that resolve themselves with the family assembled in a claustrophobic room, where the guilty party is revealed in all his glorious evil. “Black Coffee” doesn’t quite work out that way, but the set is perfectly created for the typical denouement. It is small, claustrophobic, over-decorated, with heavy overstuffed chairs and sofas, large ferns and other ungainly houseplants, too many family portraits, red walls, purple drapes. The room looks and feels hot; several times attempts are made by the characters to open the French doors, inexplicably locked, to let in some air.

“Poirot is a delight to play,” says the play’s star, Leland Shook. “He’s insufferable: a dandy, obsessive-compulsive, egocentric. He’s a nice mix of Columbo and Monk, but with a French twist.” Shook allows the character’s innate shrewdness and self-awareness to shine through, often making fun of his own pomposity.

“It was a challenge, working up a difficult accent,” he said. ‘Tim was a real pleasure to work with: very patient, very helpful. It’s an interesting role reversal: Idirected himin “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Newcomer Katherine Papadopoulos plays the desperate Lucia. Her brooding presence fits perfectly into the stultifying atmosphere; her sculptured, Modigliani-like face and Mediterranean coloring make her ideal for the part. Papadopouos, manager of the family-owned Molon Lave Vineyard, describes her character as “a sassy Italian, only weighed down with lots of secrets.” Her character has a shrewd, intuitive sense of the foibles and pretenses of the people around her; Poirot’s scenes with her are delightful verbal fencing matches.
Another newcomer, Daniel Thorp, plays the enigmatic secretary, Edward Raynor. A Warrenton native, Thorp has always thought of himself as an artistic person, but never thought of acting. “One day a movie was filming near me, I needed money, and to my surprise, it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. It shook up my life. I quit my government job, moved back to Warrenton, and reconnected with my family.” Thorp presents Raynor as a polished, elegant scholarly sort with just the right amount of menace lurking beneath the silken exterior.

“This was a fun play to figure out and stage,” says director Bambara. “It has melodramatic moments; it’s funny; it has lots of interesting characters. Three women competing for the title of ‘queen bee;’ a mad Italian doctor.” The “mad Italian” is played by Bambara’s father, Michael, who has had a long-time involvement with FCT and is returning to the stage after a lengthy absence.

Caroline Cameron and Krista Poole are excellent as the other two women making up the trio, and Kevin Stokker as the butler, Tredwell, carries off a wonderful send up of Downton Abbey’sbutler, the pompous Carson.

If you go:
What: 'Black Coffee' presented by Fauquier Community Theatre
Where: Vint Hill theatre, 4225 Aiken Dr., Warrenton
When: March 28, 30 and April 4,5 and 6
Time: Matinees on March 30 and April 6 at 2 p.m. All other performances begin at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $16 for adults, $14 for students and seniors
Phone (for information or tickets): 540-349-8760
Website (for information or tickets): http://www.fctstage.org


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