Interactive mystery is great fun

October 16, 1994|By Charlotte Sommers | Charlotte Sommers,Special to The Sun

The moon was shrouded in mist as a stream of cars wound around the drive to Tudor Manor, birthplace of the infamous John Wilkes Booth. The revolving red and blue lights of a police car cast an eerie glow on a dilapidated shed where yellow banners warned: "Crime scene -- do not cross." Inside, a trail of blood led to a corpse.

"Murder at the Auction," the annual murder mystery production of the Edwin Booth Theater, had begun. In the audience participation play by Paul Trimbur, the action takes place in and around historic Tudor Manor in rural Harford County, just outside Bel Air.

A woman has been murdered the evening her priceless antiques are to be auctioned. The audience is invited to solve the mystery -- whodunit, why and how?

Could it be the acquisitive antiques dealer, Sellma Sole? Or the husband of the victim's granddaughter, who stands to receive a large inheritance? Perhaps it's the grief-stricken granddaughter, whose constant sobbing sounds a bit insincere.

Once you get into the spirit of the evening, "Murder at the Auction" is great fun. There's no stage and no separation between audience and actors. The agitated man standing next to you might turn out to be a detective in the case. The actors, in their respective characters, engage the audience in conversation throughout the evening as they circulate from room to room.

As an audience member, you have to keep alert to catch the clues. While you're in the dining room enjoying the delicious buffet, a revealing scene may be unfolding in the parlor.

Jill Redding, who has directed numerous shows for Edwin Booth Theater, said that directing an interactive play is fun but not without challenges.

"The set pieces of the play, such as the tour of the house, are fairly simple," said Ms. Redding. "And the writer gives us a description of the characters and the dialogue. But the majority of the interaction is improvised by the actors. So as a director, my job is to coach the actors, who must invent the history of their characters, and figure out where and when they met each other."

Actress Joyce Bauer commented that she enjoys "the incredible freedom" of doing the play. When asked if it was difficult to stay in character in such close quarters, she conceded, "The hard part is when someone you know comes in and starts calling you by name and testing you."

It was a delight to watch Ms. Bauer, who plays the central role of the temperamental Sellma Sole. Here's someone who really knows how to work a room! Dripping with furs and rhinestones, she sashayed around the house, one minute the charming hostess, the next snapping her fingers and ordering people to hurry along.

As the dour Sam O. Bouy, Earl Scroggins was entertaining as he prowled the grounds, peeking in windows for clues. And Lea Billingslea as the chipper Ann T. Eeks was quite charming.

It was almost as much fun to watch the audience as the actors. One man became so obsessed with the whereabouts of a missing silver tray, his persistent questions became a running joke with the cast.

The use of an auction as a dramatic device was a clever idea, but it turned out to be an auction preview. It would have been fun for the audience to actually bid on items, and it would open up the opportunity to ask questions about the history of the items and thus gather more murder clues.

The opening night performance was a bit ragged. The pacing of the action could have been tighter, and the solution of the mystery was so quick and perfunctory, it was a bit disappointing.

But all in all, "Murder at the Auction," which runs through Oct. 30, is an enjoyable, offbeat diversion for an autumn evening.

For ticket information, call 836-9000.

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