Theater Review: THE SECRET COUNCIL (First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook, Chicagoland)

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by Dan Zeff on January 30, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


The First Folio Theatre has come up with an unexpected winner in David Rice’s world premiere adaptation of Agatha Christie’s light novel of international intrigue The Secret Council, originally titled The Secret Adversary when it was first published in 1922.

Andrés Enriquez and Melanie Keller

The novel and adaptation introduce Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley, friends in post World War I England who decide to form a detective partnership to fill their time and earn some living money. The adjective “winner” is inspired by my previous exposure to Tommy and Tuppence stories in which they came across as a pair of insufferably annoying, coy, and cartoonish characters. Rice has expertly converted The Secret Council into a stylish, entertaining, drolly humorous suspense romp given a superior presentation by a cast of six versatile performers embedded in a clever and fast-paced staging.

Tina Muñoz Pandya, James Lewis, Melanie Keller

Including the title, Rice has made a few adjustments to the original Christie novel. The time of the story has been advanced slightly to 1929. In the play Tommy and Tuppence are just friends, while in the Christie stories they marry and have twins. But the greatest improvement comes from the elevation of Tuppence from a ninny always stumbling into danger into a resourceful young lady who keeps her cool under the most trying circumstances and actually saves Tommy from peril more than once.

James Lewis, Melanie Keller

The Secret Council begins with a sinister Englishman contacting Tommy and Prudence to hire them on a secret case. Their assignment dates back to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and eventually involves the British and United States governments, plus a coven of Russian Bolsheviks out to undermine the stability of British society. A torrent of suspicious characters flood the scene, two of them murdered. The narrative is a blur of plot twists that repeal the law of averages, ending with Tommy and Tuppence loquaciously explaining what actually has happened, for the efficacy of the secondary characters and the audience.

Melanie Keller, James Lewis, Elizabeth Ledo, Andrés Enriqez

The First Folio cast is led by Melanie Keller as Tuppence and Andrés Enriquez as Tommy, complimented by a quartet of actors who cumulatively impersonate a dizzy number of supporting good guys and villains. First among equals is Keller, who upgrades Christie’s stereotype helpless female in need of male rescue into the intelligent and breezy core of the play. In a supporting role, veteran Chicagoland character actor Joe Foust delivers a dazzling soufflé of male and female characters with hilarious split second costume changes. Elizabeth Ledo, another superb old pro among Chicagoland performers, contributes an additional delicious basketful of diverse characters. The ensemble is superbly completed by James Lewis and Tina Muñoz Pandya. The production is directed with panache by Brigitte Ditmars, who does an outstanding job of sustaining the pace of the production and keeping the blizzard of characters and storyline complications clear.

Tina Muñoz Pandya, Melanie Keller

The production designers are invaluable contributors to the success of the show by credibly establishing the 1920s feel of the action. Rachel Lambert has designed the myriad of costumes that the characters whip on and off with split second timing. Angela Weber Miller’s set design consists primarily of movable doorway frames that facilitate the rapid shift from place to place. Michael McNamara’s lighting design and Christopher Kriz’s sound design and original music are additional invaluable contributions to sustain the Roaring Twenties atmosphere. And a special shout out to Sammie Grant, the vocal and dialect designer. To my American ear at least, everyone on stage speaks with authentic British — and in one case Russian — accents.

Melanie Keller, Joe Foust, Andrés Enriquez

So, much to my surprise and enjoyment, the First Folio production turns out to be a small gem of a show. Everyone involved recognizes the material as light entertainment, but they never patronize the script with cheap laughs or corny melodrama. Well done all round!!

photos by Tom McGrath

The Secret Council
First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate
1717 W 31st St. at Route 83 in Oak Brook
ends on February 27, 2022
for tickets ($44 to $59), call 630.986.8067 or visit First Folio

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