Ten Little Indians is a classic murder mystery (stop me if you've heard this one). Eleven people are invited to an isolated mansion on a remote island for a vacation. None of the guests actually knows the host, and it isn't long before strange things start happening. A record plays, accusing each of the guests of being responsible, directly or indirectly, for the death of someone in his or her past. After this mysterious accusation is made, the guests start turning against each other, suspicious that the person playing this cruel joke is someone in the room. And then (surprise!) people start dying.
The title refers both to a children's rhyme and a small statue in the house where the story takes place. The poem predicts how each person will die, and every time a character is shuffled off their respective mortal coil, one of the Indians on the statue disappears.
I suspect that when Christie wrote this play, she decided it was easier to start killing people from the opening rather than spend time on character development. The people inhabiting her play are mere bourgeois types, which makes it difficult to care when yet another one gets knocked off. I waited impatiently for each survivor to walk into the next obvious trap just so the show could move on. But even as the play crawled to a conclusion, I was never particularly interested in finding out who was the actual murderer. It's a testament to the talents of the actors that they were able to do so much with such an uninspired story.
The exception is the character of General Mackenzie, played with a graceful and appropriate melancholy by Steve Wallace. The mysterious voice accuses the general of murdering one of his soldiers. He doesn't deny his guilt, having ordered the young soldier to march to his death because the general's wife had been in love with the young man. While the other characters don't deny their culpability in far more heinous deaths, the general is the only one genuinely interested in confronting his inner demon. He is so consumed with grief over the memory of the soldier's death and the loss of his wife, that he quickly loses touch with reality. Rather than use the general's character as an opportunity to explore the human capacity for cruelty, Christie instead does the crowd-pleasing thing and makes him an early victim.
The real reason this murder mystery doesn't work is because Christie insists on looking for monsters in the most extraordinary situations. The assumption is that only homicidal maniacs and all-purpose psychopaths are capable of inhumane actions. What Christie overlooks is that normal human beings are capable of being absolute monsters, and they have to live with their regret. At the play's conclusion, Christie has bypassed the most interesting parts of her own work, which leaves only one compelling question: Do the survivors retain any memory of their own bestial natures?
Nevertheless, this is a quality production, indicative of a superb effort by a talented cast and crew. Colorado Springs is in dire need of a cultural renaissance, and I am optimistic that this theater group may yet succeed in bringing one forth -- if only they choose better material to showcase their considerable talents.
-- Eddie Kovsky
Ten Little Indians presented by the Star Bar Players
Jan. 23, 24, 30, 31 and Feb. 6, 7 at 8 p.m.; Feb. 8 at 2 p.m.
Lon Chaney Theater, City Auditorium, 221 E Kiowa