How to have fun while solving a murder — The Thin Man at Vertigo Theatre

As a genre, mysteries have an enduring appeal. They invite us into a larger-than-life world and ask us to work alongside their central characters to help solve a mystery. While we’re deducing and discovering we also get to go on a fun ride into a new world with the satisfaction of knowing by the end who is to blame and why. It is increasingly rare these days to get to the bottom of a mystery much less to understand the motives behind people’s actions. In a world where so much seems random and obscured, no wonder we still have a voracious appetite for mysteries.

Calgarians are fortunate to have Vertigo Theatre focused on celebrating the mystery genre right under our own iconic Calgary Tower. This week, Vertigo premieres an adaptation they commissioned from celebrated Canadian playwright Lucia Frangione of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man.

Hammett’s book, and the hit 1934 movie that Roger Ebert called “a drawing room comedy with dead bodies,” is a gem in the mystery genre because it introduced the world to one of the most endearing fictional couples on the 20th century: Nick and Nora Charles.

Curt McKinstry and Nadien Chu take up the roles of Nick and Nora in Vertigo’s production, which is a co-production with Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre.

Frangione embraced the opportunity to shift our perspective on Nora’s character by working with Chu to research and shape a new backstory for Nora as the Chinese-American heiress of a silk import/export fortune in San Francisco.

“Nick and Nora are then essentially in an interracial marriage in the 1930s, which is not common but certainly not unheard of at that time,” Chu says. “I had been told for years in doing period pieces, ‘No you can’t be in this piece because people like you didn’t exist,’ which is actually completely wrong!”

Frangione’s adaptation aims to strike a balance between the hard-boiled whodunit tone of Hammet’s book and the sense of fun and playfulness of the film. “I love the sense of style and fun that comes with these pieces,” says McKinstry “The characters are larger than life but have a sense of humanity underneath all of that.”

Chu adds, “You have to fundamentally care about them.”

Nick and Nora ground the audience as the mystery unfolds and act as the sane centre of the insane world around them. The great chemistry between Nick and Nora is key to the success of The Thin Man. What makes the characters such a great team?

“They really listen to each other,” Chu reflects.

“Like any truly good marriage, they’re best friends,” adds McKinstry. “They are truly, deeply in love with each other. They have fun, they are a fun couple, they really enjoy each other’s company, I think. They play well off each other.”

McKinstry and Chu hope that audiences will have the same kind of fun that Nick and Nora have together as the mystery of The Thin Man unfolds. You can join in on the fun at Vertigo Theatre until Oct. 14.

Vicki Stroich is a Calgary-based theatre artist and arts administrator with a passion for the arts, culture and the environment.