By Sharon Eberson
Post updated with newly released production photos by Michael Henninger
Martin Giles popped up on my Zoom screen to reveal an epic mustache a few weeks ago. Back then, the hair on his upper lip seemed headed toward Tom Selleck territory rather than the famously persnickety, profoundly brilliant Belgian detective he was about to play. Since we associate Poirot with that meticulously sculpted mustache, Giles allowed that he had grown “good raw material” to achieve that particular characteristic.
Agatha Christie used words like” gigantic,” “immense,” and “amazing” to describe Hercule Poirot’s mustache. So how it appears is an essential part of Giles’ character in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Murder on the Orient Express, which opens Wednesday, April 13, and runs through May 1.
It seems impossible that this will be Giles’ first appearance for the Public since You Can’t Take It With You in the 2000-01 season. The Pittsburgh stage veteran has kept busy with many a Quantum, City, and PICT Classic theater productions on his way back to the Public. He leads a cast that includes some frequent scene partners and familiar names to local theatergoers. The cast includes James FitzGerald, Catherine Gowl, Lenora Nemetz, Caroline Nicolian, Helena Ruoti, Alec Silberblatt, Saige Smith, Ricardo Vila-Roger, and David Whalen.
Artistic director, Marya Sea Kaminski, directs the group of fictional murder suspects and Agatha Christie’s master detective at work.
Behind the actor, among the other theater memorabilia on display, was a skull – from when he directed A Skull in Connemara at PICT, with a cast that included current castmate Silberblatt.
When Giles stepped back onto the stage after the prolonged COVID shutdown, it was in PICT’s As You LIke It, another large-cast production.
“That was nice. It was a really lovely group of humans” – some who are onstage with him in “Murder on the Orient Express” – “and it was just fun to be out there live,” Giles said.
During the pandemic, he had a creative outlet as part of a group of local artists commissioned by City Theatre for its “Spotlight – Performer Creations” series. They created and performed short works under a tent at the City of Asylum.
For Murder on the Orient Express, Giles was asked to send a video audition for Poirot, followed by an in-person call-back that was his first chance to get acquainted with Kaminski.
“It was on a day when there was a storm coming, and the whole office was empty – it was just Marya and I, and she read with me. She’s really good, by the way. It was a really wonderful experience.”
Giles had a mustache at the time, although not quite as epic as it has become. He used an accent because, “WIth Poirot, you must.”
A week later, he was asked, “Do you want to play Poirot?” And the answer was no mystery to anyone.
Giles did not turn to the Christie book, first published in 1934, to prepare for the role as source material. Nor did he revisit screen versions, including Kenneth Branagh’s recent foray into two Poirot movies and the great David Suchat of the British television series.
“I love David Suchet’s Poirot so much,” Giles said, “but I don’t want to be anything like that because it’s so perfect. And the Poirot in the play is not like that, either.”
He researched the character that has a life of his own beyond Christie’s writing and this Ken Ludwig stage adaptation.
Among the qualities that Giles picked up on were the obvious, such as his “mild OCD” and how as his character evolves, he becomes less interested in clues than in the psychology behind the criminal act.
“His attention to people’s behavior and his focus when he is listening and then is able to draw conclusions are the things that fascinate me the most,” Giles said.
The actor points out that Christie, one of the most prolific mystery writers in the English language – including 33 Poirot novels – came to “despise” her creation. But he was so beloved by the masses she kept going.
If fact, her stories are so well-known that there is the inevitable thought of how you approach a mystery in which everyone knows the ending. For most people, the fate of Romeo and Juliet, or the identity of who among the passengers committed murder on the Orient Express, is well known.
Yet those are stories that are revived and reimagined again and again.
“The thing is, to play the really amazing, weird, rich characters, unfold their stories, and watch how Poirot works. It’s not always obvious. He makes these sort of leaps, and you have to figure out, ‘How’d he go there?'”
Although there is murder afoot aboard the Orient Express, Ludwig has bestowed a bit of comic flair onto the mustachioed detective.
It’s a fun role all-around for Giles’ return to Pittsburgh Public Theater, which heads toward summer with two more shows this season, August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running’ and the Lesley Nichol solo show, “How the Hell Did I Get Here.”
That feeling of affirmation that theater in Pittsburgh is indeed back, full force, came over Giles during a rehearsal day of blocking in a play that represents 10 actors moving about on a moving train.
“I just realized in the middle of it how much pleasure I was getting out of it,” he said. “It’s familiar but also discovering. It is a joy. It’s what we do.”
Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Murder on the Orient Express is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, April 13-May 1. Tickets and more info: https://ppt.org/production/76195/murder-on-the-orient-express or call 412-316-1600.
Categories: Show Previews