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Murder on the Virtual Express

Santa Rosa Junior College Theater Department streams an Agatha Christie classic. The large cast includes a number of actors and artists from Petaluma.|

<strong id="strong-db79196c430c8a0cee66b87aeb2caad9">PLANNING TO WATCH?</strong>

What: Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” presented by the Santa Rosa Junior college Theater Department

When: October 16, 17, 23, 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Streaming live via Zoom

Tickets: Sliding scale donation from $5. Tickets may be purchased TheatreArts.santarosa.edu. A Zoomlink will then be emailed to you before the showtime of your choice.

When Agatha Christie published “Murder on the Orient Express” 86 years ago, in 1934, it’s possible she might have imagined her novel would someday be adapted for the radio or the stage, two mediums she had worked in many times and was comfortably familiar with. She might even have imagined it being turned into a motion picture, as a few of her works had already been adapted for the big screen, beginning with the 1928 silent film “The Passing of Mr. Quin.” In fact, the protagonist of “Murder on the Orient Express,” the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, had already appeared in three movies, played by Irish actor Austin Trevor.

But could she have envisioned the coming of television, where Hercule Poirot has been a regular staple of mystery programs, television series and Masterpiece Theater special presentations from almost the beginning of the T.V. format? And how might she have reacted to being told that in 2020, “Murder on the Orient Express” would be performed over something called Zoom, with audiences watching on small-to-large screens in their own homes while the actors performed their roles miles apart from each other from their own residences?

As someone who was famous for regretting her decisions to sell performance rights to certain producers, admitting she seldom watched such adaptations because (according to one interview she gave), “The pain would be too great,” its possible that her take on a Zoom production would be, as long as the telling of the tale were faithful to her own, the medium hardly matters.

Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor”), the writer of a new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” that Santa Rosa Junior College’s Theater Arts department is preparing to present as a live streaming Zoom production, has occasionally played fast and loose with his adaptations of literary masterpieces. But to the cast and crew of the upcoming production, including four theater artists from Petaluma, the offbeat marriage of Christie, Ludwig and Zoom is resulting in a wholly original experience.

“We’ve been rehearsing since mid August,” says Petaluma’s Mark Ferrando, who plays Monsieur Bouc in the production that begins streaming on Oct. 16. “It’s definitely had it’s own unique challenges,” Ferrando allows, “from the occasional freeze-up on camera, to various technical issues, and then, with the recent fires, some of our cast members have had to relocate during rehearsals. It’s been a lot of hard work, but we’re forging ahead, and it’s going to be very special, I think.”

In the story, an American is found murdered on a train stuck in a snowbank, stabbed a dozen times in his cabin, which is mysteriously locked — from the inside. The passengers include several folks with coincidental connections to the victim, and Poirot, on his way home to London, who vows to identify the American’s killer before he (or she, or they) strikes again.

“It was definitely the strangest audition I’ve ever been a part of,” Ferrando says of auditioning for the play. “We all had the option of either auditioning live, on Zoom, for the director, Laura Downing Lee, or submitting a YouTube audition, which is what I did. I was very delighted to be cast as Monsieur Bouc.”

Bouc is an old friend of Poirot, a fellow Belgian, and the director of the railway that owns the Orient Express. In this version, Ferrando admits the playwright has expanded the character of Bouc a bit.

“This is a murder mystery, so there’s a lot of darkness,” he says, “but the playwright has still managed to find a lot of lightness and humor, and a lot of that is focused through the character of Bouc. I’m having a very good time bringing him to life.”

It was pure luck that led to Petaluma’s Sierra Downey ending up in the SRJC production, which the self-described “1930s British mystery nerd” learned about from a friend who posted a note about auditions being postponed because of the fires.

“I had never taken a class at the JC, never been in a production at the JC,” she explains. “If I hadn’t seen that post I never would have known about this production. But when I saw it was specifically ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to try out.’ Agatha Christie’s works are among my favorite works ever, so I had to take the chance to jump into one of them, and thankfully, I was cast as Countess Andrenyi.

The Countess is one of the train’s many passengers and among Poirot’s numerous possible murder suspects.

“It’s a great role, and I’m impressed with how Ludwig has adapted her,” says Downey. “It’s rather different from the novel, actually. And that’s very exciting. She’s a character who is full of agency, and actually has a lot more to do than in the original version, which I love, but it’s fun to dig into a whole other side of the countess.”

The SRJC production incorporates elements of a radio play, with the cast playing radio actors presenting the story, which Agatha Christie herself narrates. There is even a traditional foley artist, creating the sound effects with functional props.

“I was so excited when I heard this was being presented on Zoom, but also as a radio theater production,” Downey says. “I’m a big fan of radio plays, and doing this in that form, it’s just so clever. What a brilliant way to adapt to the limitations of COVID.”

Those adaptations, of course, extend far beyond the script and remote performances of the actors. As one of the show’s stage managers, Maggie Davis, of Petaluma, has had a lot to adapt to as well.

“I am still called a stage manager, though the role is very different from what I’d normally be doing as an in-person stage manager,” allows Davis. “I still have the same paperwork details, and a lot of the same responsibilities, but I just don’t have the stage. I have a lot of screens instead, so it’s been a learning curve, but I do believe that this is going to be the theater of the future, so I’m excited to be jumping in and learning all of these new things.”

Though Davis believes actors will eventually return to the stage, in theaters with live audiences, she does believe that this kind of live-streaming entertainment is the wave of the future.

“The truth is, live theater is not always accessible or affordable for everyone, and that’s kind of unfair, because theater is a beautiful art form and everyone deserves a chance to experience it,” says Davis. “I hope that, in learning all these new skills that COVID has brought us, we’ll eventually work out the wrinkles, and soon be able to make theater accessible to everyone, not just those who can get to a theater or pay for a ticket.”

For Petaluma’s Lukas De Bel, a theater major whose SRJC debut was going to have been “The Wedding Singer: The Musical,” originally scheduled for earlier this year but canceled due to the pandemic, the chance to play not one but two characters in “Murder on the Orient Express” is a welcome challenge.

“This semester, I’ve taken one acting class over Zoom, and though at first I was kind of against the whole idea of Zoom theater, I ended up learning a lot,” says De Bel. “It’s actually really interesting, and very challenging, and really fun. So I auditioned for this show, and now I’m playing a Turkish waiter in a high class hotel, and then my main character is Michel, the conductor of the Orient Express.”

One advantage to performing multiple characters on Zoom, he points out, is that he doesn’t have to run to the dressing room to do the costume changes.

“We haven’t gotten our actual costumes yet,” De Bel says, “But I’ve been using substitute costumes during rehearsals, and I have this one faux suit hanging on the lamp, just out of view of the laptop camera, that I’ve been using for lighting myself during my scenes. I’m probably going to use that for my costumes too. I can just do my costume changes right here in my room.”

The DIY nature of the project, from setting up his own lighting to figuring out costume changes to installing the set pieces that all the actors are using for their backgrounds, is a big part of the challenge of this kind of production.

“It’s a totally new world, that’s for sure,” he says. “It’s a very different dynamic, and that’s part of the fun.”

<strong id="strong-db79196c430c8a0cee66b87aeb2caad9">PLANNING TO WATCH?</strong>

What: Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” presented by the Santa Rosa Junior college Theater Department

When: October 16, 17, 23, 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Streaming live via Zoom

Tickets: Sliding scale donation from $5. Tickets may be purchased TheatreArts.santarosa.edu. A Zoomlink will then be emailed to you before the showtime of your choice.

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