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Colonial Players’ Unexpected Guest

Even the actors don’t know whodunit in this appealing mystery

Lara Warwick (Shirley Panek) and Michael Starkwedder (Jeff Mocho).

The works of Agatha Christie, the queen of murder and reportedly the best-selling author of all time, are timeless because her characters transcend their settings. The privileged classes, it seems, are no happier than the rest of us, so we adore their frailties as much as the grandeur that surrounds them. Christie mysteries are box-office gold even when they’re so-so; Colonial Players’ The Unexpected Guest is diamond-studded platinum.
    As this production’s expected guests, we are transported into the bosom of the Warwick family, broken but living the illusion of perfection.
    Richard Warwick has been killed, but he asked for it. He had a fatal arrogance. Ask anyone. His mother, Mrs. Warwick (Elizabeth McWilliams), knows it. You can read the regret in her proud eyes. His wife Lara (Shirley Panek) knows and perhaps wished death upon the aristocratic, sadistic sot. Even his sweet, feeble-minded brother Jan (Ethan Goldberg) knows they will all breathe easier freed from Richard’s authority.
    Not that the help will admit it. They’re paid too well for their lip service. But you can tell that Miss Bennett (Jean Berard), the dead man’s efficient secretary, and his valet Angel (Michael Rogers) are not torn up over the old invalid’s fate. Who could mourn a man who would run over a child and berate the brat for being in the way?
    Good thing Warwick’s faithful friend and neighbor, Col. Julian Ferrar (John Sheeler), is on hand to shepherd everyone, especially poor Lara, through the inquiry. The unexpected guest who discovered the grisly crime scene: What would Inspector Thomas (Mark T. Allen) and Sgt. Cadwallader (Justin Truesdale) do without the timely assistance of Michael Starkwedder (Jeff Mocho)? Still, the police have their work cut out for them.
    Ironic, isn’t it, that the big-game hunter left this world at the business end of his own gun. ‘Tis a mystery, indeed.
    Even the actors didn’t know until three weeks before curtain, so I won’t tell. I will say, however, that no one in opening night’s sell-out crowd figured it out.
    The cast is superb, from Mocho’s unexpected guest — catalyst to the plot — to Truesdale’s poetic policeman, whose character speaks volumes in few words. Rogers’ Irish valet is so polished and professional he could fill Sebastian Cabot’s shoes as Mr. French. And Panek, a veritable black widow in black taffeta, is as beguiling as a Venus flytrap.
    All the costumes are spot-on, as are the accents, which roll like fog across British Isles. Kudos to the set and technical designers as well for furnishing Richard’s mahogany study with not one but three authentic big game trophies, and for showcasing sunsets, storms and skulking forms in the night through two vast windows.
    The only professional touches missing from this otherwise excellent production were the services of a competent hairdresser and program proofreader. One character was not listed in the program on opening weekend, which made the process of elimination doubly difficult for those of us trying to out-sleuth the sleuth.
    Judging from audience reaction, Colonial Players has a hot number, one that should garner many awards. Such a solid start to the season bodes well for the follow-on family musical, Little Women, another classic story with name appeal, which opens in November.

    Director: Richard Atha-Nicholls. Set: Doug Dawson. Costumes: Linda Swann. Lights: Michael M. Harris. Sound: Ben Cornwell.
    Playing thru Oct. 8 at 8pm FSa; 2pm Su and 7:30pm Su Sept. 25 at Colonial Players, 108 East St., Annapolis. $20; rsvp: 410-268-7373;