A Whodunit Where The Audience Has A Clue

November 02, 1990|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff writer

People are seldom at their best right after a murder, so I suppose it's only natural that no one believed I was a journalist.

After a while, even I wasn't too sure, but fortunately they managed to find the killer before I confessed.

The scene of the crime was the upstairs banquet room at the Middleton Tavern in Annapolis. There, a group of very talented improvisational actors known as the "Murder Upon Request Theatrical Group" has been knocking off people on a monthly basis for nearly two years.

Established in 1987, using performers from the Maryland Renaissance Festival, the company performs what director/writer C.J. McWilliams and her partner, Dom Lonardo, a full-time actor and director, describe as "participatory theater."

This means that, using various established scenarios, they stage their events in and around their audience, at times pulling them into the action.

Maybe that's why not everyone would believe I really was a journalist, that or I've tapped into a certain level of media resentment.

McWilliams described the origins of the group, which grew out of her previous involvement with another mystery troupe.

"It was the brainchild of Dominic and me. We met at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. It was the second to the last year he did the festival, about four or five years ago, and he said, 'We really should get this together.' He had the directing background, and I quickly acquired the writing background."

This type of entertainment is similar in terms of audience participation to "Shear Madness," which has been performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington for the last three years. One key difference is that the "Murder Upon Request" group has an established murderer in their script, regardless of whomever the audience might suspect.

"It's formula writing," McWilliams said. "I'm not trying to fool anybody there. You have to have a murder and you have to have suspects, and you have to have motives, opportunity and personalities. The way we write our mysteries -- if you follow the sequence of events, and ask most of the questions -- you can only come to one conclusion."

Notwithstanding, the audience came to several conclusions, mostly wrong.

But after all, they were there to have fun. And if the barrage of questions and speculation was any indication, they had a lot.

One of the dangers of this type of theater, where there is no stage and the actors must adapt their scenario to an unpredictable audience, is that things can so easily slide out of control. But the cast performed a beautiful balancing act between the need to keep the story moving along and the need to keep the audience involved.

"I want full credit given to the actors in this production, because they can make or break it with the improvisations that they do," McWilliams added.

Presented last Tuesday night, the story known as "Murder Unmasked" was presented with an occult flair, since the next day was Halloween.

Under the leadership of New Orleans-based spiritualist Salina Blackstone, a volatile company of psychic researchers and actors attempted to re-create the conditions that would summon the angry ghost of the late Philip Bolyn and help him find his killer, no easy task as the crime took place before the American Revolution.

The scene was an elegant dinner, coupled with a seance that brought everyone into a convenient circle, just as the lights went out and another murder was committed.

And before the evening was over, two more members of the company also died. This left the other guests assembled to work with Detective Phillips to find the killer, in between dinner courses.

The cast included Tom Plott of Bowie as the psychic (psychotic?) Nosmo King; Rick Amick as Matrix, a man with a high ESP rating and low tolerance for drink; and Theresa Flynn of Arlington, Va., as the slinky Southern spiritualist Salina Blackstone. Cybele Churches of Baltimore played actress Lillian White, Mary Ann Jung of Bowie played Marian Morrison, another actress, Bill Huttel of Forrestville was Izzy Short, while C.J. McWilliams played Perri Maison.

Tony Guida of Cabin John was Tony Guida (the name was his choice), Larry Rockwell of Kensington played Edgar Compton, an actor and red herring in the scenario. Michael Forrest of Silver Spring played producer/actor Kieron Jones, and Dom Lonardo of Arlington, Va., handled the double role of the late Philip Bolyn and the detective Marlowe Phillips.

The story unfolded amidst the amiable chaos of a crowded cocktail reception, as the cast talked and quarreled among themselves and the other guests, the better to set the mood. Along with the drinks, clues were provided on slips of paper, hinting as to the motives of the cast.

The independent reality of the evening was further enhanced by various guests who identified themselves as Miss Marple, (who let slip at least one colorful colonial expression), J.B. Fletcher, Mike Hammer, at least two Lt.

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