“The murder is really kind of incidental,” says Doll Piccotto. “You’ve got a body, and then there’s just a puzzle around it.”
As a director, dramaturge and certified mystery fanatic, Piccotto has a keen understanding of the era- and genre-transcending appeal of Agatha Christie. City Lights Theater’s production of Christie’s The Hollow, based on her novel of the same name, opens under Piccotto’s direction this Friday.
Piccotto is close with the author’s oeuvre, having directed The Hollow once before, as well as acted in another of Christie’s plays.
“The best part about being onstage in an Agatha Christie play is hearing people whispering to each other about who did it. Someone will come into the green room and say ‘Okay, everyone thinks Edward did it tonight!’ Suddenly, in that last scene, you feel this wave of realization echo across the audience.”
Piccotto tells Metro that the red herrings and unexpected twists of Christie’s novels caused a stir in her day. Her narration in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd made guessing the culprit so difficult that readers wrote into newspapers accusing the author of “cheating.”
Christie was no stranger to causing stirs. In 1926, she disappeared in a case that might sound familiar to fans of Gone Girl. Following the discovery of her husband’s affair, Christie went missing for 11 days, her car found at the bottom of a cliff. After much media frenzy, she was located in a hotel spa—in a room she’d booked under her husband’s mistress’s name. The situation was chalked up to stress-related “amnesia,” but one has to wonder if the author’s stories of betrayal and revenge may, at times, have been inspired by her own life.
Tension in The Hollow builds from a tangled web of relationships centered around the Angkatell family, whose idyllic weekend reunion at their country home comes to a brutal halt at the end of Act 1, with one member of the love hexagon dead and another found unexpectedly holding a gun.
Clearly something of a rebel against expectations of her time (Piccotto excitedly reveals Christie was one of the first English people to go surfing), Christie also wrote complex and multilayered women. The extended family centered in The Hollow includes “sensitive, bohemian artist” Henrietta, her cousin Midge, determined to stay financially independent from her family, and spacey Lady Angkatell, who often knows more than she lets on. These plot-driving ladies stand out—both in the context of the era she lived and wrote in, and on stage, where there’s still a dearth of female roles.
Silicon Valley Shakespeare, whom Piccotto has worked with since 2004, meets this dearth with their biannual all-female production. In a 2017 production of Hamlet, Piccotto played antagonist Claudius opposite Anne Yumi Kobori (now The Hollow’s Henrietta) in the title role.
“People came up to me after the show to say ‘I never thought about it like that!’ Women have a different take on things. I didn’t think of myself as a villain—I’m just trying to be a good stepdad! I mean, he truly believes he’d be the better king!”
The philosophy translates well into The Hollow, where each person in the house has potential motivations for the murder. Her conflicted, “completely imperfect” characters manage to stir empathy for the audience, even as each one falls under suspicion.
In recent years, a gruesome grandchild of the murder mystery and the procedural—true crime—has exploded in popularity, especially among women. Even adaptations of classic detective stories like Christie’s have gotten grittier and darker to match the desensitized modern palate.
“One thing I like about her stage plays is they’re written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. There’s always something a little goofy and campy, that makes it more of a cozy mystery. No one wants to see a dead body on stage for a very long time.”
Regardless of one’s aesthetic taste for fear and gore, piecing together the clues of a crime brings a sense of gratified discovery in a world where the constant inundation of conflicting information can be stupefying.
“Everything is laid out for you. She gives you everything. Even if you don’t figure it out, looking back you can put each piece together and find the solution. It’s satisfying because there’s a clear answer.”
Opens Thu, 8pm, $25+
City Lights Theatre, San Jose