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A glitzy ‘Hollow’ at Douglaston Community Theatre

Fans of Agatha Christie have been having a field day recently in Queens community theaters. Last spring two groups mounted two of her best-known works, “Witness for the Prosecution” at Theatre Time (Whitestone) and “The Mousetrap” at Theatre à la Carte (TALC, Douglaston). Just last Friday Douglaston Community Theatre opened its three-weekend run of one of her least known, but most intriguing, plays, “The Hollow.” I caught the Saturday evening performance, appropriately enough on a rainy night filled with a dreary atmosphere.

These three recent productions run the full gamut of how Christie’s plays are done. At one end of the spectrum, Theatre Time’s “Witness” was a good, straightforward presentation of the play, never really going beneath the script to see what makes the characters tick other than what the very interesting script itself does. At the other end of the spectrum, Theatre a la Carte’s “Mousetrap” had a bevy of guilty characters, hiding secrets and exploding into confrontations, a style well beyond the more typical presentations I’ve seen of this play — a model for other bold adventurer’s into Christie’s works. The director and cast delved deeply into Agatha Christie’s very personal, dark view of human nature.

Indeed, Agatha Christie’s insights into the human psyche makes her works as gripping today as when she wrote them, many more than 50 years ago. Perhaps the most shocking is her view of the battle between good and evil within all people, and of the effort to keep evil in check. Her characters are all guilty of some past evil or fatal error of judgment, which they are trying to hide or evade. Within this view, even the most placid person is capable of brutal murder if driven to a point when evil can no longer be held in check. Once that evil side takes over, that person can become quite ruthless.

Which brings us to DCT’s production of “The Hollow,” a work noted for its smoldering passions ready to burst from beneath the printed lines of the script, as well as for the shocking, abrupt murder of a major character midway through the play. It is perhaps more famous as a novel, in which the famed detective Hercule Poirot is called upon to solve the crime. Poirot was used by Agatha Christie as a means of digging into the corrupt British aristocracy of her day. Christie often painted a ruthless portrait of the Britain’s upper class and allowed the cultured, meek Poirot to walk gently among them, pointing a pitying finger of justice. He seemed to pity them for their foibles, from which they could not escape. He hunted killers to put them mercifully out of their misery and save them from further crimes.

With that in mind, my first impressions of DCT’s presentation was that Ed. Dzioba and his team must be congratulated for mounting a handsome production. The set was lovely, allowing for the terrace and its enigmatic sculpture to be visible at the rear, as well as for the cast to exit from the terrace and re-enter from stage right. The cast was attractive, beautifully clothed and coifed, and for the most part consisted of rather accomplished, talented people, though I did not recognize many of them from local Queens productions of the past six or seven years.

That said, after just the opening scene, I had to question whether I was actually watching “The Hollow.” Or was this some re-telling, or re-interpretation of the tale? Granted, Agatha Christie laces her plays with that uniquely tart British style of humor. However, her plays are not comedies — they are deadly serious. Each has its own message, as does this one: its brave condemnation of the callous upper class and its evolution in the hands of an enlightened younger, more democratic generation.

But DCT seems to have converted, or should I say distorted, this tale into a mere trifle, a light comedy, complete with sight gags and, the biggest howl of all — the horrific death of the murderer at the end of the play. What a kick!

For example, Lady Angatell has lines that drip with guile, which can bring disturbing smiles to our comedy-seeking audiences faces. But, my God, she is a ruthless bitch, whose one concern in life is to be sure that the unmarried heir to the estate gets married. In the script, Henrietta Angatell describes Lady Angatell as “Not a bit kind. I always think she is rather a cruel person, perhaps because she isn’t quite human. She doesn’t know what it is to feel and think like ordinary people.”

By translating all her lines into gags and by creating a running joke of having her drink liters of sherry, DCT’s production has demeaned Christie’s message. Lady Angatell is not a doting eccentric — she is in complete command of everything that she earnestly wants to do. Her apparent absent-mindedness is an arrogant lack of concern for anyone or anything that has no connection with her estate. By the play’s end, when she views the murderer’s body with that famous comment, “How very fortunate,” the audience should be shuddering with dread at her callousness, not giggling at a cartoonlike Cruella de Ville.

As Lady Angatell, Sonia Tannenbaum was hell-bent on delivering her lines as if this were “Arsenic and Old Lace” or a Noel Coward comedy. Only for one brief moment, in quiet conversation with her husband who has accused her of murder, did she give us the faintest glimpse of her hellish interior. Certainly a great presence on the local stage, perhaps Tannenbaum will dig more deeply into the real meaning of this role in some future production.

Henrietta Angatell, in the hands of Sherry Mandery, gave feeling to many of her scenes. However, she was too well-coifed and gowned, trotting about the stage in high, high heels, to convey a passionate artist — not just any kind of artist, but a sculptress, a person of great physicality and vision. Unbelievably, Act II opened with her drinking tea, at a moment she should have been racked with guilt. Her “John is dead, dead, dead” monologue is often practiced by young actresses as a study in self-torment. I don’t think she or her director caught the point. After all, she had just had a torrid affair with her best friend’s husband just before his death. Get it?

In the play, Hercule Poirot was transformed into Inspector Colquhoun — because no actor at the time could be found to capture Poirot’s Belgian accent and style. But Colquhoun is described in detail much like Poirot. “A thoughtful, quiet man with charm and a sense of humor. His personality is sympathetic.” George Greenfield’s interpretation displayed none of this. In fact, his delivery conveyed the hauteur of the aristocracy that he is supposed to be demolishing.

Highest praise to Dawn Bianco for a sincere and authentic portrayal of the desperate Midge, whose dabbling in the working class has created an enlightened spirit. Bianco’s poignant confrontations with Edward were quite effective, so true to what Christie had in mind. Her work was particularly valiant since she was partnered by an Edward, who in the hands of Ed Hughes, lacked volume and presence. This is such a deeply felt role that I was amazed that an actor could not convey it. In fact, at times, I thought he needed a pulse check.

Praise also goes to Sharyn Arena, whose passionate and rapacious Veronica Craye lit up the stage with each appearance. A stunning woman in gorgeous gowns, she was as radiant as she was vicious. I remember her well from another Agatha Christie play, Theatre a la Carte’s great production of “Towards Zero” about four years ago. Please, Arena, don’t keep us waiting another four years to do another play.

As the dynamic cad, John Cristow, the object of so many women’s passions, John Emro delivered his lines with articulation and finesse. However, he seemed rather flat and not very much of a passionate lover. (How could a woman kiss him without being scratched by that beard?)

His wife Gerda, the play’s most interior role, caught a sympathetic approach from Adrianne Noroian for much of Act I. But just because she is described as “rather stupid,” there is no need for her to be continually sad. After one scene, I had enough of the droopy voice and manner. After all, crawling beneath her flesh is the jealousy that will detonate the plot. A more sophisticated approach would have been to paint her as almost arrogant, bored, pouting that she must spend time at the Hollow, with bursts of self-confidence (noted in the script), as ill placed as they may seem to be.

The cast was rounded out with a steadfast, articulate Gudgeon as portrayed by Harry Gross, an adroit Detective Penny by Dean Schildkraut and a blustery Lord Angatell from Richard Crook, three performances that served the Christie style quiet well.

Director Laura Wallace-Rhodes can be applauded for keeping the play moving at quick pace. All her cast made timely entrances and wasted not a second. I was rather disappointed that the character of Doris was deleted, I assume in the interest of time, because Christie actually identified so much with the Labor movement that she represents. Indeed, the class conflict and the hopelessness of the uneducated class was an essential part of this play. In other productions of this play that I have seen, such as a memorable one in Toronto 10 years ago, Doris was rather a highlight. Oh well, next time.

The pacing came to a dead halt in the grand finale. Where was the thunder and lightning? Where were the explosions of the passion and betrayal? This scene should have been a heart-throbbing display of explosive nature and the hysterical Gerda, transformed into a monster before your very eyes. Noroian seemed incapable for pacing her hysteria in the finale to reach a fever pitch. And as for the final death, which I have seen actresses affect by clutching in horror onto Colquhuon, the murderer merely slumped over. Ho hum!

You are not likely to see Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow” locally again for some time. So for die-hard Christie fans, DCT’s production has enough glitz and polish to help you spend an evening in Christie’s honor. Douglaston Community Theatre offers two more weekends, Fri. and Sat. Oct. 18, 19, 25, 26 at 8 p.m. and at 2 p.m. Sun Oct. 20 at Zion Church Parish Hall, 44th Ave. off Douglaston Pkwy. Call 482-3332 for reservations.

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