From left, Major Quimby (played by Gene Valendo), Emma Reese… (Photo for The Baltimore…)
In "Bloody Murder," 2nd Star Productions offers a parody of British murder mysteries with surprising twists and turns.
Charles Maloney, director of more than 20 plays for 2nd Star, is introducing Bowie Playhouse audiences to this amusing 2009 mystery written by his longtime friend, Ed Sala.
Here a stock set of characters — including the wealthy lady of the manor, her loyal maid, a retired army major mired in his past, a mysterious countess, a fading, often-inebriated actor, an ingenue, a worthless nephew, an inscrutable Chinese man and a bumbling inspector — play out their roles, aware they are playing characters in a developing mystery story. This play-within-a-play aspect takes a bizarre turn when Lady Somerset announces that she refuses to participate in another mystery created by this "dreadful, lowbrow author."
Describing this unique twist as "a sudden turn in which things are not what you thought they were," Maloney adds, "I've never seen anything like it."
In addition to choosing excellent actors to play each role, and sometimes multiple roles, Maloney must also conduct a symphonic chorus of cliched characters to build coherent theater. He accomplishes this despite the fact that this work initially lacks such rudiments of a mystery as intuitive reasoning. The action must build while surprising the audience with comic twists preceding characters' realization that they are reacting to a hackneyed writer's whims. This major turn reveals the actors battling with the writer's attempts to control them.
Timing is crucial throughout, with cast members reacting to a door swinging open or shut, lights going out — both signaling an impending murder — or unexpected guests arriving at Lady Somerset's home to confuse and amuse. This can work only when coordinated by skilled lighting and sound designers, and 2nd Star's Garrett Hyde perfectly executes both essential elements.
Perhaps most essential to making this mystery-comedy work is the skilled ensemble of nine actors who bring substance and panache to their deliberately stereotypical characters while retaining credible English accents through the performance. These actors are able to step back from their character to recognize that they are playing roles in a mystery developing in the author's mind. Actors engage in sharp dialogue with their invisible author, at times stepping completely out of character, momentarily dropping the fourth wall.
A veteran of 12 2nd Star productions, Arnold resident Heather Tuckfield is perfectly cast as feisty, elegant Lady Somerset, looking every inch the part and creating memorable theater when she tells her guests that they are mere characters in this trite murder mystery and later announces her refusal to participate any longer as a creature subjugated to interpreting the author's ideas.
Heidi Toll, who has brightened productions at Annapolis Summer Garden and Colonial Players, returns to 2nd Star to amuse as the exotic Countess; she also plays a lost motorist and a nun.
Rosalie Daelemans plays snooping maid Jane, who reveals another identity in her relationship to one murder victim before transforming herself from prim to alluring.
A standout in this excellent ensemble of actors is another Annapolis favorite, Tim Sayles, who plays actor Devon Tremaine in his third role with 2nd Star.
Gene Valendo returns for his second appearance with the company, giving an outstanding performance as Major Quimby.
Also returning for his second performance with 2nd Star is Zak Zeeks, who plays Charles Pomeroy.
Reliable regular Marty Hayes convincingly plays Chief Inspector Phelps and is also seen as a silent priest.
Edgewater actor and musician Joe Biddle, who served as 2nd Star's musical director for the past five musicals, graces its stage for the first time in the roles of Mr. Woo, El Gato and a priest.
Broadneck High School honor student Vivian Wingard, a veteran of 25 productions at 2nd Star, gives a nuanced performance in the role of sweet ingenue Emma Reese.
"Bloody Murder" offers an entertaining evening of theater despite a production that initially struck me as overly ambitious and confusing. Introduced to an array of stereotypical characters restricted to reciting banal observations, I found their interaction often hard to follow until I realized that everything spoofs classic English murder mysteries.
If we tolerate the confusing start and an overly complicated explanatory ending, we will find much to enjoy during most of the show, which is filled with fresh turns and comic twists that wittily help to define it.
Performances continue weekends Thursdays through Sundays through Sept. 22 at Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park. Tickets are $20; $17 for students and seniors and for groups of 15 or more. For reservations, call 410-757-5700 or 301-832-4819.