A series of harrowing screams. A dead body. A big and bloody knife.
If your escapist summer fun tends toward the murder-mystery variety, then count yourself lucky. Director Risa Brainin's filmic staging of "Murder on the Orient Express" opened over the weekend at the Guthrie Theater and it's entertaining, if a touch long.
The Agatha Christie whodunit achieves that rarity in live theater: the cinema-style closeup. The most compelling example of this effect happens at the end of the first act when things get confusing and crazy for rock star sleuth Hercule Poirot. The lights draw to a pinpoint, the sound score builds to a climax and the mustachioed face of Andrew May freezes in shock and amazement, his bulging eyes a metaphor for the theatrical dramedy.
Adapter Ken Ludwig, whose half-dozen Broadway shows include "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Crazy for You," has streamlined Christie's narrative, although he could tighten it even more, especially during the exposition-heavy recapitulation.
The year is 1934 and, after a little R&R in Istanbul, the Belgian detective Poirot is on a train back to Europe. But work follows him everywhere and soon his friend Monsieur Bouc (Gavin Lawrence) is asking him to solve the onboard killing of shady American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Peter Christian Hansen). Ratchett has been stabbed eight times (down from Christie's 12). Clues include a handkerchief with the initial "H," a pipe cleaner and a burnt piece of paper referencing murdered girl Daisy Armstrong.
Since a snowbank has stopped the train in its tracks and there are no footprints in the snow, everyone on board is a suspect. That gallery includes Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Michelle Barber), Countess Andrenyi (Katie Bradley), Colonel Arbuthnot (also played by Hansen), governess Mary Debenham (China Brickey), uber-pious missionary Greta Ohlsson (Jane Froiland) and wealthy and flirty Helen Hubbard (Sally Wingert).
Brainin's production boasts striking design, including Rob Koharchik's silkscreen-influenced scenography, Devon Painter's period costumes and Michael Klaers' character-illuminating lighting. Some of these elements combine to create a strong sense of locomotion as train cars move.
But what puts this "Murder" over the top is the humor that ripples through the winning performances. Brainin draws notable turns from May, whose cane-wielding Poirot suggests a Belgian father to Magnum P.I.'s Tom Selleck with self-assured wit replacing the American's animal magnetism.
The cast clearly is having fun and standouts include Bradley as the curt and professionally courteous countess, Froiland as the overdone Greta and Wingert as the loud, bawdy and unabashedly Minnesotan Helen Hubbard.
Kudos also to Hansen, for showing range in his dual roles as the Scottish colonel and the deserving murderee, to Lawrence as the benevolent caretaker and to Barber as the grand princess.
"Murder" answers a question that gets asked from time to time: How can you make entertainment about murder when, in the real world, events around such crimes bring such heartbreak?
That's because the world in this "Murder" is ridiculously self-contained and the characters are over-the-top. And as all the clues of this whodunit become a puzzle, your mind gets locked into solving it, thereby offering an escape on a throwback train journey.
'Murder on the Orient Express'
Who: By Ken Ludwig, adapted from Agatha Christie's novel. Directed by Risa Brainin.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 7 p.m. Sun. Ends July 2.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required on June 4.
Tickets: $20-$79, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.