Mysteries that knock 'em dead

A Harford County theater troupe brings mayhem to the stage and joy to the audience


When life gets a little stressful, Cecilia Neumann reaches for a good mystery.

"Reading is how I get away from it all," Neumann said. "And I don't want a cheap romance novel, either. Give me some bodies."

The Bel Air widow is partial to British authors because their crime scenes "are not so sloppy." Still, a mystery is a mystery, and Neumann will take them as they come. So she recently joined members of a widows and divorcees support group at a murder mystery show at the Baker House, a bed and breakfast in Aberdeen.

Many of the audience members said fun was their main motivation for attending the show. But a little digging suggests that there is a cultural appetite for tales of sleuthing.

"If you look at television and you look at movies today, I think it's unavoidable but to conclude that we are a mystery-fascinated culture," said Reed Farrel Coleman, author and executive vice president of the New York-based Mystery Writers of America.

The TV programming is clogged with offerings such as Monk, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or one of a slew of Law & Order options. And mysteries are often among the book titles on national best-seller lists.

"Literary fiction often leaves you to question things," Coleman said "Mystery fiction or crime fiction gives the reader the answer. People are looking for that in a post-9/11 world ... in which things seem to be spinning out of control."

A look at the structure of a detective novel can be revealing, Coleman says.

"The model was the Knights of the Round Table. ... They provided virtuous soldiers who fought on behalf of the little man with the forces of good and justice on their side," Coleman said. "Look at CSI today. Even in cases that seem unsolvable, they provide answers."

Comedic mystery shows staged by Otter Productions once or twice a month at the Baker House are considerably less serious in nature than most of the prime-time crime hits. On the night Neumann was there, the title of the show was I Know What You Did Last Groundhog Day. It involved an absurd character who enjoyed dressing up like a singing and dancing groundhog named Gary.

Gary and other eccentric characters rotated through scenes in the middle of two adjoining downstairs rooms in the restored Victorian mansion. Audience members - who paid $30 for dinner and the show - sat in chairs ringing the rooms and were engaged occasionally by the actors who, at times, asked them to tattle about what other actors had been saying.

Fake blood was involved. Theories weren't far behind.

"He's lying through his little toes!" shouted one audience member.

"You should make him to sneeze," yelled another, convinced that the sound of someone's sneeze was a pivotal element of the plot.

When it came time for the audience to guess whodunit, Ashley Livezey, 16, was leaning toward the guilty party. She has long been a big mystery fan and enjoys the validation of correctly guessing the outcome.

"You feel good about yourself when you figure them out," said Ashley, who, like many in the audience, was not staying at the inn but came for the show.

Ashley, a Bel Air High School student, said she grew up reading mysteries, including those starring Nancy Drew, a beloved fictional detective born six decades before Ashley.

That was another period in history - the Depression - when the formulaic mystery approach appealed to the American psyche, according to Melanie Rehak, author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her.

"Not only did Nancy Drew have the ability to make everything come out right in the end - which was not happening in the 1930s in America - but she lived in a world that was basically untouched by poverty," Rehak said.

Readers found comfort in her predictability, as many still do today, Rehak said. Open a Nancy Drew book and you know you'll see good people, bad people, and three mysteries that will be neatly tied up by book's end, she said.

Mysteries also have long held a revered place on the stage, said Herb Otter, producer of Otter Productions.

Look at Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, he said, which opened more than 50 years ago and holds the distinction being the world's longest-running play.

Otter Productions is a troupe of about 15 people who sometimes practice in the carriage house behind the Baker House on Bel Air Avenue. Several members live in Harford County, while others are from elsewhere in Maryland and Pennsylvania, said Otter, who lives in Baldwin. In addition to working with the troupe, Otter is the house manager at a regional theater in Montgomery County.

Otter said he stumbled onto murder mysteries by accident several years ago and has been hooked ever since.

So, he said, are audiences.

"There were a couple of lean years in the early part of this decade," Otter said. "Now there seems to be a resurgence. If you put a murder mystery into, say, a historical mansion or a boat, people are just drawn to it."

Otter Productions plans to put on a show in November at the Sterling Inn in the Poconos, where the troupe has performed before.

Unlike the shows at the Baker House, everyone gets a part in the Poconos. The troupe is trying something similar for the first time at the Ramada Conference Center in Edgewood next weekend.

The troupe also performs on passenger trains on the Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad and the Gettysburg Railroad in Pennsylvania and is embarking on a series of murder mystery events aboard the Black-Eyed Susan, a Baltimore Harbor boat that docks in Fells Point.

"I think there's always been this sort of fascination with life and death," Otter said.

"Maybe this is a way of dealing with life and death in a lighter way."

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