What I learned. . .

2013 was the year of Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike and Other Desert Cities, two plays I'm more than eager to direct.  When Steve Woolf called me to discuss the 2013-14 season at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, I was delighted to receive an offer, though not as excited that the play Steve had in mind for me was The Mousetrap as I might have been, had the Durang or the Baitz been what he was floating in my direction.  Nonetheless, I accepted - and, as it turned out, had a bang up time.

I'd never done a murder mystery.  I'd never done an Agatha Christie.  I had no idea what to expect, and entered our first rehearsals well prepared but totally unknowing, interested in finding out exactly what sort of experience for which I was in store.  And what I learned was that directing The Mousetrap was nothing but pure, unadulterated fun.

It helped that I had an expert design team: John Ezell, sets; Dottie Marshall Englis, costumes; Peter Sargent, lights; Rusty Wandall, sound.  It helped all the more that the actors we cast (Darrie Lawrence, Ellen Adair Gilde, William Connell, Christian Pedersen, Tarah Flanagan, Sean Mellott, Michael James Reed, and Larry Paulson) were not only terrific, accomplished folk, but great fun with whom to work, start to finish, top to bottom.

John Ezell provided the perfect playground in which we brought the mystery to life.  The set encompassed the full depth and width of the Rep's thrust stage, and with a variety of levels and furniture groupings, I was able to keep the play varied and alive -- and utterly still when we needed the suspense to build.  It was movement-as-living-sculpture at its most fun.

I also learned that Christie's story -- radio play, then story, then stage play -- is based on horrific real life events involving child neglect and death.  The murderer in the play is based on a real person who survived unspeakable circumstances growing up, and though he never sought the kind of vengeance the murderer in The Mousetrap tries to exact, his older brother passed away from near-starvation and beatings at the hands of the boys' foster parents.  He himself survived, overcame the after effects and aftermath of those events, married, raised two daughters, and was actually able to attend a performance of The Mousetrap in London's West End after it had been running for several years (and after he found out that the notoriously popular play was inspired by his own life story).  Knowing that at the bottom of Christie's murder mystery lurked something so horrendous helped me guide the actors toward truthful, grounded performances that, I am hopeful, skirted the traps of caricature and overplayed melodrama.

As always, it's the unexpected assignments -- the ones that don't necessarily ignite our artistic impulses and excite our hearts at first -- that often provide our greatest lessons.  The Mousetrap turned out to be an exercise in craft, in learning how to build suspense, and, as always, in remembering to uncover the truth.  The play has plenty of lapses in logic, so pacing was important -- for two reasons: one, to keep ahead of the audience and two, to not allow the audience too much opportunity to say, "now wait just a minute!"

Ultimately, The Mousetrap tickles our minds while it entertains -- and while, in moments, frightens us. We played to record-breaking crowds that could barely contain themselves at intermission as they argued with each other and tried to guess who was the murderer.  And it seems they also heeded the cast's admonition at the end of each performance's curtain call to not give anything away -- to let their friends, neighbors, and family members attend a performance and find out for themselves.  What was, momentarily a disappointing offer, turned out to be one of the best times I've had in a rehearsal hall and theatre in recent memory.  I'm grateful . . .  and grown.

The Mousetrap

Rep Theatre of St. Louis

December, 2013

Christian Pedersen, Tarah Flanagan

“Take seven characters, put them in a stately old English manor, leave them stranded courtesy of a snowstorm, kill somebody without revealing the killer and you've got the traditional set-up for a standard murder mystery.  But this is Agatha Christie, and 'The Mousetrap' is far from standard.  It has become theclassic that redefined the drawing room 'whodunit,' known particularly for its surprise ending--several of them in fact.

“In the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' level-headed, handsome production, we get a glimpse of why this cleverly constructed play has been running continuously since it opened in London's West End in 1952, and is now the longest running show of any kind in the world.

“There are more red herrings flying around Christie's story than at the San Francisco Fish Market.  From the opening minutes when Giles Ralston sneaks across the great hall and secrets a package in a floor chest, our attentions are directed, well, everywhere.  Cut phone lines and missing skis, characters whose stories don't quite add up or the frequent odd statement or action: It's an orgy of suspicious behavior, twists, turns, secrets and surprising denouements.  Then Christie ties it all up with a bow on the Rep's pretty package.

“Of the technical aspects, there can be no complaints.  Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes, lights by Peter E. Sargent and Rusty Wandall's sound were all first-rate, as were the performances.  Each actor developed a full, rich character and it was a delight to watch them in this work by the genre's greatest practitioner.  Likewise, director Paul Mason Barnes exhibits a skillful hand in staging and keeping the play moving, even with its long, dialogue-heavy scenes, which can sometimes be anathema to modern audiences.

“If curling up with a good mystery on a snowy night sounds like your idea of a good time, try curling up with a live performance of The Mousetrap at the Rep instead.  Besides, nothing says "The Holidays" like a good murder.  Or three."

     Chris Reilly

     Alive Magazine

"It was a dark and stormy night- both outside with snow falling on the streets of St. Louis and inside where snow is hindering the guests who are gathering at Monkswell Manor- now a bed and breakfast in the English countryside.  It's the classic murder mystery, The Mousetrap, by the grande dame of mystery, Agatha Christie.  I'm sure this clever show has played in our area before but this was my first time seeing it on stage.  It's loads of fun with quirky characters, loads of red herrings and a constant, low buzz in the audience (particularly in the second act) as some "ah-ha" moments seemed to prove some folks wrong- or were they?  A perfect holiday show at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis- hey, if it can't be a musical, I'm fine with this delicious, intriguing cat and mousestory.

"Superb direction by Paul Mason Barnes (winner in many categories at last year's St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards for 'The Comedy of Errors' at the Rep) helps move this suspenseful play through exposition and into surprise after surprise as we try to discover if the local killer who has strangled several women is among the guest as they arrive at the B&B which now has the, all trapped due to the snowstorm.

"John Ezell has set the perfect mood with his eerie and foreboding interpretation of the Great Hall at Monkswell Manor.  Peter E. Sargent's lights add to themood and Dorothy Marshall Englis has provided just the perfect costume plot to go along with the intriguing mystery plot.  Rusty Wandall brings his special touch to the proceedings as well with excellent sound effects including the chilling announcements from the radio about the killer as the play begins.

"Congrats to Director Paul Mason Barnes, Steve Woolf and the rest of the 'usual suspects' at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis for bringing us a perfectly delightful holiday treat."

     Steve Allen

     Stage Door St. Louis

"About once a season, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis stages a show that looks like money.

"Usually set in the past, it boasts a lavish set, often designed by John Ezell; beautifully detailed costumes, often designed by Dorothy Marshall Englis; and dramatic lighting, often designed by Peter Sargent.

"Ezell, Englis and Sargent are all on hand for the current outing into luxury, Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap.'

"'The Mousetrap' is still running in London, where it opened in 1952.  That makes it the longest-running play in the world.  For decades, audiences have agreed not to reveal the ending of this tricky murder mystery -- and that promise holds here, too.

"But there's a lot that you can say.  Director Paul Mason Barnes emphasizes the style aspects of this story, set in a post-war era of changing standards.  Although it's a mystery -- not too scary, reasonably tough to crack -- 'The Mousetrap' makes a pleasant evening. . .  engaging in its depiction of a long-ago world.

"Barnes and the ensemble polish every performance . . .  all the actors play their parts with finesse.

"Ezell's set is almost a character in its own right, from the curved bench at the hearth (the best seat during a blizzard) to the mullioned windows to thearistocratic portraits on the walls.  They would not approve of murder.  But they might enjoy spending time with such well-behaved people, no matter what's up their stylish sleeve."

     Judith Newmark

     St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"An aura of nostalgia permeates The Mousetrap, this month's holiday offering at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  Nostalgia, due not to the advancing age of Agatha Christie's 1952 whodunit -- nor because of any affection for its lofty stature as the world's longest-running play. Nostalgia, rather, for those artisans who year after year collaborate at the Rep with expertise and imagination.

"The rendering of a musty old manor house 30 miles from London is yet another splendid example of scenic designer John Ezell at his most extravagant and detailed.'  'Ezell's creaky old house has been illuminated by the subtle yet caressing lighting design from Peter E. Sargent.  Now add to this mix thecharacter-revealing clothes thoughtfully designed by Dorothy Marshall Englis, who apparently has an entire team at her disposal, solely charged with keeping pants creases razor-sharp.  For so many years now, Englis, Ezell and Sargent have comprised a formidable designing triad.

"Paul Mason Barnes, one of the most inventive ('Stones in His Pockets') guest directors to work at the Rep, has filled out his Mousetrap ensemble with a talented bunch."

     Dennis Brown

     The Riverfront Times

"I can't say that I've ever read much of Agatha Christie's work, I'm more inclined toward the convoluted and pulpy prose of Raymond Chandler myself.  But, there's no denying the staying power of her play, 'The Mousetrap,' which is still running in Britain since its opening in 1952.  It's become an institution, and has influenced countless writers with its mix of quirky characters and deliberately misleading red herrings.  The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting this classic mystery in a splendidly performed production, and it's a perfect holiday treat that engages and entertains.

"Paul Mason Barnes directs with a sure hand, and the pace is generally upbeat throughout.  I found myself completely involved and on the edge of my seat while anticipating the final plot twist, so this venerable 'War Horse' still has a lot of life left in her.  John Ezell conjures up a beautifully realized set that's effectively lit by Peter E. Sargent.  Dorothy Marshall Englis once again contributes exceptional costumes that lend a nice period feel to the proceedings."

"This wonderful production of 'The Mousetrap" by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis continues through December 29, 203 at the Loretto-Hilton."

     Chris Gibson

"This is a lavish, gripping new production of one of the longest-running plays in the English language.  And Agatha Christie's whodunit shines with an outstanding cast of quirky, fascinating actors caught in an array of teasing, often agonizing reversals.

"Director Paul Mason Barnes brings Agatha Christie thoroughly to life, giving us a real sense that we're being toyed with directly, and even relentlessly, by the great poisoner and shooter and stabber herself.  And then he puts his actors through a horrendous emotional wringer, in a sometimes horrific set of those now-familiar, impossible-to-duplicate Christie character confessionals.

"All the potential suspects show a powerful range of human grief and grievance, as each pairs off with another, time and again, for genuinely haunting little scenes about disappointment and neglect and anguish and, well, just trying to forget.  Think of it as Ibsen with a lot of humor.  And a vengeance.

"And then it finally struck me, near the end, that the whole mystery genre must exist largely just to help us deal with the truly awful things that happen in life, all the time, all around us.  And that it gives us hope: that we might solve a lot of those problems ourselves, just by listening closely, and watching out for every little detail.  Before it's too late."

     Richard Green


"The season's first snowfall this past week in St. Louis provided the perfect setting for the Rep's current production, Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap'.

"Under the thoughtful direction of Paul Mason Barnes, the cast provide strong performances, giving their respective characters enough depth beyond their first introduction to make you believe any one of them could have done it.  John Ezell's scenic design includes stained glass windows, towering walls and theheavy elegance of a grand and well-worn manor house.  The production is also elevated by Dorothy Marshall Englis's costumes that sit snuggly within theplay's design, Peter E. Sargent's evocative lighting design, and Rusty Wandall's slick sound design.

"The Rep's production of this classic theatre nugget is well worth seeing. . ."

     Andrea Torrence

     St. Louis Theatre Snob

"Get out your tweeds, your twinset, order a hot cup of Earl Grey and prepare to be happily entertained by Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap', a play that has been performed continuously for an incredibly sixty-one years and has been crowned the 'longest running play of all time.'

"The Rep has created a lovely little slice of nostalgia."

     Connie Bollinger


"Dame Agatha Christie told a colleague that her  nifty little play would probably last eight months when it debuted in London's West End in November 1952.  She was off by at least 60 years, four months and counting.  'The Mousetrap' is the longest-running play in history, racking up more than 25,000 performances since its opening.

"In the tradition of the famed whodunit's production, audience members are asked at the show's conclusion not to reveal the identity of the murderer.  Part ofthe fun, after all, is trying to figure out who the killer is.  What can be mentioned, however, is how thoroughly delightful The Rep's holiday rendition is, with director Paul Mason Barnes providing a hearty evening of entertainment throughout its leisurely two acts and two hours, 30 minutes of running time.

"The players in this piece appear to be having as much fun as the audience."

"'The Mousetrap' isn't Shakespeare or Miller or Williams.  It is, though, a 'ripping yarn' that is jolly good entertainment for the holiday season.  Enjoy theproceedings, but don't give away the ending."

     Mark Bretz

     The Ladue News

"Agatha Christie is one of the best-known mystery writers in history.  Her novels, plays and the film adaptation of those plays have provided the basis for many popular conventions in the murder mystery genre, and the whole idea of a classic 'whodunit' set in an ornate English country house with a cast of disparate characters and a dramatic reveal of the culprit is irrevocably associated with Christie.  'The Mousetrap' is one of her best-known plays, famous for its plot as well as the fact that the original production has been running in London's West End since 1952.  Since then, the play has been performed many times around the world by professional and amateur companies as well as schools.  For a play that is so well-known and oft-performed, it must be a challenge for a professional company to present it with a sense of energy and immediacy that would still make it exciting for today's audience, and theRepertory Theatre of St. Louis has done just that with their excellent new production.

". . . the characters' relationships were particularly well-played . . . ' 'The characters drive the plot as the evidence is presented gradually and efficiently, and even though I had seen 'The Mousetrap' before years ago, this cast still managed to make the reveal dramatically satisfying.

"The casting for each character was ideal, and the play's suspense and drama as well as its elements of broad comedy are well played.' 'The entire cast is to be commended. . .  These characters could easily become caricatures, but this wonderful cast has managed to bring out their humanity rather than just portray a collection of quirks.

"Agatha Christie's mysteries are so well-known and oft-imitated that they could very easily be viewed as a collection of worn-out cliches, and this production very effectively avoids that trap.  The real thrill here is in how this precisely executed production is able to ensnare its audience and keep our attention from start to finish.' 'It's a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre.'"

     Michelle Kenyon

     Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts