Robbie Thomas has drummed up safe and convincing ways to kill people on stage in the past. As Village Repertory Co.’s associate artistic director, he’s helped produce numerous Shakespeare plays, which famously feature a high volume of swordfights and dead people.
But Thomas has never had to choreograph 10 extraordinarily specific deaths within a single show. Yet that’s what he had to do for And Then There Were None, a demise-heavy number which features characters expiring by poisonings, stabbings, hangings, falling clocks, and a host of other means. The show, originally written by Agatha Christie, runs at Woolfe Street Playhouse through Nov. 16.
“There’s a lot of murder on stage,” Thomas confirms. “There’s not a lot of blood — I’m not producing House of 1,000 Corpses or anything — but trying to find safe and thrilling ways to portray death onstage has probably been the biggest challenge that I can think of.”
It’s no accident that such a grim tale is being presented around Halloween. In fact, timing is the main motivation. “It’s full of scares, frights, and mystery,” Thomas says. The show is doubly fitting for this notoriously spooky season because it features Christie’s original ending, which — without spoiling the plot — is much bleaker than the version that was initially adapted for the stage in 1943.
When Christie died in 1976, her estate honored the more mirthless of the two conclusions by allowing theater companies to portray it if they desired. “Once we knew we could do that, we were definitely on board,” Thomas says.
So which death was the most difficult to depict in an artful manner?
“Probably the hanging,” Thomas says. “Trying to figure out how to do that without hurting anyone, while also making it look realistic, was somewhat of a struggle. But people on the staff talked with one another and we figured out how to make it work.”
In short, according to a synopsis on the Village Rep website, And Then There Were None is “the story of 10 strangers, each lured to an Indian Island by a mysterious host. Once the guests have arrived, the host accuses each person of murder. Unable to leave the island, the guests begin to share their darkest secrets — until they begin to die.” The play began as a novel of the same name written by Christie in 1939, which went on to become the greatest-selling crime book of all-time, with over 100 million copies sold.
The novel was so popular that Christie subsequently adapted it for the stage. It’s since grown into an equally successful play, and its widespread popularity is one of the reasons the Village Rep decided to produce it during a time of year when mischief is particularly en vogue. “When October rolls around, we like to do something Halloween-themed. Not necessarily super scary, but at least something in that vein,” Thomas says. “This play definitely fits into that category.”
Every member of the 11-person cast is locally based, and the majority of them are actors from the Village Rep ensemble. Several individuals were brought in from outside the company’s talent pool, however, including Lauren Ritter, who plays Vera Claythorne, a former governess who comes to the island under the assumption that she’s going to work as a secretary.
“Vera is a strong and sassy lady,” Ritter says. “The others on the island almost look to her as a confidant in some of the darkest moments,” which makes sense to Ritter, who notes, “I think I’m seen personally as a comforting person and many people I know will confide in me without fear of their secrets being revealed.”
Ritter, who has trained in New York City with the Broadway Artists Alliance and worked at Walt Disney World as a performer, was drawn to And Then There Were None because she’s a fan of “darker shows, and murder mysteries in particular.” She’s found it challenging, but rewarding, to get into the headspace of being trapped on a secluded island with a murderer in the midst.
“People have said that Agatha Christie originated the slasher film, so Vera’s journey is a psychological thriller to say the least,” Ritter says. “The murderer toys with her and the other victims that are left alive. People react to difficult situations in different ways. I had to step into her shoes and figure out how Vera would react and feel.”
The Village Rep’s decision to recruit talent from beyond the ensemble usually stems from one of two scenarios: a scheduling conflict with an ensemble member or the presence of a non-ensemble member who’s simply better-suited for a distinct part. Ritter falls into the latter category. “Lauren just wowed me. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to cast her,” Thomas says.
The Village Rep’s production of And Then There Were None is another opportunity for Charleston to showcase its thriving, collaborative theater scene. “You have to work together. This is a small city, and we’re all sharing the same talent and donor dollars,” Thomas says.
Thomas has worn virtually every theatrical hat during his time in the business, though directing has perhaps become his niche. He says that shifting between so many roles has been both enlightening and humbling: “Having to do everything at one point or another during my career has allowed me to have more respect for the people around me. It’s made me realize that it’s a team effort, and that one person can’t do everything.” a