When Agatha Christie’s name is on the marquee, people tend to notice.
“Sometimes it proves challenging just to get the word out, but the name Agatha Christie does that for you. We saw that with ‘The Stranger’ and we wanted to give people what they want,” said Mary Jane Hansen, artistic director of iTheatre Saratoga.
When the company premiered Christie’s “The Stranger” last year it drew quite a crowd.
This time, iTheatre Saratoga went a step further. They’re adapting and producing Christie’s first mystery novel, “The Man in the Brown Suit,” which entered the public domain this year.
Hansen began working on the adaptation late last year, poring over the original novel as well as a graphic novel version and an abridged version. It’s her second time adapting one of Christie’s novels: In previous years she was authorized by the Agatha Christie estate to adapt “Ordeal by Innocence.”
Adapting a novel to the stage can be a daunting process, and Hansen said she appreciates the responsibility of the task.
“This one presented challenges because it’s epic in scope. There’s a lot of travel going on, so we’re relying on our tried-and-true methods of taking our audience to different places and exotic locations with projections and sound and costuming. We’re going from the south of France back to London to Southampton, to Madeira to Cape Town, up to Victoria Falls and back to Johannesburg,” Hansen said.
The story follows Anne Beddingfeld (played by Elizabeth Pietrangelo), a recently orphaned woman who, after witnessing a strange death, becomes entangled in a mystery that takes her all over the world with Suzanne Blair (played by Anny DeGange Holgate), Sir Eustace (John McGuire) and Guy Pagett (Oliver Comstock Reynolds).
“One of my favorite things about it is the very strong female characters in the play. It’s headed up by a young woman [Anne] who just bucks all the trends of her time. She wasn’t raised in a proper English setting so she . . . is not hemmed in by those restrictions. She lets her imagination and her sense of adventure roar,” Hansen said.
The narrative takes place in the early 1920s, and touches on some social issues of the day as well.
“There’s an uprising going on in South Africa. You see the beginnings . . . of Apartheid bubbling up. Some of the white Afrikaner miners [are] striking because the color bar is being weakened, and they’re promoting native Africans to skilled and supervisory positions. Some nefarious [organization] is feeding this uprising. They’re bringing in arms and fomenting this anger. This is peripherally related to these murders/accidents that have happened in London. So Anne is able to put all of those [details] together using her scientific training, and her natural curiosity and intelligence,” Hansen said.
The production also includes the first appearance of Colonel Race, an ex-army colonel who was once the leader of the counter-intelligence agency MI5, who shows up in several of Christie’s other works. Race is played by Tim Christensen.
The variety of locations in the play make scene-building a challenge. To transport audience members, iTheatre uses authentic 1920s-style costumes, with men wearing suits and women wearing drop-waist dresses and even jeans.
Many of the locations and countries are depicted through projections and with the assistance of sound.
“I think that our approach on a lot of the things that we do is cinematic. . . . Our set is very spartan. It’s more about moving the furniture and the projections, but it’s still taking you on that journey. It would be almost impossible to do something like this with a realistic setting just because there’s so many locations, you go to so many exotic locales. But I do think that the cinematic appeal filters into the music, the sound design, the lighting,” said Will Severin, iTheatre Saratoga president.
“The Man in the Brown Suit” is the second Christie premiere iTheatre has done, and brings a complex storyline and a mystery from perhaps the queen of the genre. When the theatre put on “The Stranger” in 2019, it saw higher attendance and drew people from a different demographic.
The same might just be true for “The Man in the Brown Suit,” which opens Friday at Saratoga Arts Center.
'The Man in the Brown Suit'
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24 through Saturday, Feb. 1; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2
WHERE: Dee Sarno Theater, Saratoga Arts Center
TICKETS: $15 students, $25 adults
MORE INFO: itheatresaratoga.org