A Good Mystery, Not Ruined
by Jim Briggs
There is a perfectly good mystery playing in Madison, Wisconsin, out on the east side. You’ll find it at MercLab, an extension of the Mercury Players Theatre, a cozy 30-seater at Fair Oaks Avenue and East Washington. As the crowd gathers simultaneously with the dusk, they are met and greeted by stage manager Bonnie Balke, who sweeps guests into the welcoming space, cautioning them as to which places would be more and less likely to incur—er—audience participation overtures from the actors.
It is only fair that the mood is established early, to prepare audiences for an evening which will prove playful and irreverent and raucous, delivering, as promised by a web site promo, “laughs for the literati and the lowbrow.”
You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery is the collaborative work of Madison playwrights Christian Neuhaus and Rick Stemm, and evolved, apparently, from a much shorter “blitz” play produced at a local “smackdown” festival, a variant of the popular “fringe” movement, which has proved so influential in 21st century drama. Its principal setting is Victorian London, and its two main characters, boon companions, are a detective and a doctor. For the benefit of those who presume too much, the onstage Narrator announces at the outset that the detective . . . Sh___ . . . sh . . . shall remain nameless!
There is subtlety and burlesque, trenchant wit and garish slapstick, showy spectacle and muted minimalism all coalescing under the practiced hand of veteran Madison director Sam D. White. And, central to the whole idea, a generous element of audience participation. This latter is incorporated at several junctures, not simply to settle a nuanced point or two; nor even merely to steer a predetermined course toward a pre-packaged ending, a device most mystery enthusiasts have seen before; but to determine action, setting, theme and more. In other words, a mathematician skilled in regression analysis—or even a reviewer with a cheap calculator and sufficient ambition—could probably fathom the possible permutations and determine the exact number of plays that Neuhaus and Stemm actually wrote. Unfortunately, on a given evening, playgoers may see only one.
Happily, given the imaginative staging, the spectrum of linguistic agility, and the pervasive, nonstop hilarity, a single option is all you’re going to need. Moving scenery, for example, is nothing new, but as The Detective and The Doctor make their way from place to place, afoot, in a horse-drawn hansom, aboard a train, or even on a ship across the channel (or maybe the North Sea, on a different night . . .), the background not only keeps pace, but reverses itself on cue, and actually assumes new and amusing identities. Overhead supertitles (incorporated by Neuhaus when he found that MercLab owned a projector) in the form of anagrams and cryptograms add to the mystery and merriment without devolving into a pointless verbal scavenger hunt, as often happens in mystery playscripts. Living portraiture and an outsized magnifying glass prove modest but cleverly satisfying; an unexplained hula hoop not so much. The old “walk this way” gag is given new life, as is updated repartee from such diverse sources as Winston Churchill (let us not forget the literati!) and the 1989 movie Major League.
All of this works, of course, not just through the comic vision of Neuhaus and Stemm. There are also the always-shifting costume and set designs of Morgan Boland and Sydney Krieger. Victorian wallpaper dominates the background, with Industrial Revolution gears and cogs peeping through, not coincidentally, here and there. A door (yes, just a door) always appears when needed (which is often), opening, shutting, and even blowing and slamming in the wind. Trees, shrubs and lampposts appear and disappear with startling accuracy and rapidity. Even a happy cow, the familiar black and white variety, probably transplanted to England from its native Dane County, positively dances past us. Other scenery merely whisks.
Costumes also skew toward the Victorian. The distraught Lady Bosom-Heaving, from the waist up, at least, is corseted and amplified to achieve the very effect her name implies. Regrettably, her short skirt with bustle does not exactly complement the rest of the look, evoking a strange combination of frowzy ballerina and heavy metal slut. The Detective, in an early scene, wears a waist-length leather Eisenhower jacket. In a later appearance, there is still no woolen cape but at least a billowy trench coat, albeit bespangled with dozens of shimmering, jingling keys. If this is an inside joke, it is too far inside for most of the audience to grasp. In fairness, the requisite pipe and deerstalker, at least, are firmly in place, from the first scene to the last. In France (remember, it could have been Ireland), the intrepid Ensemble cast appears (suddenly, as they always do) in striking, zebra-striped “mime” outfits, and execute one of the play’s most memorable moments.
But the real stars of the show are the cast themselves. Christopher Younggren plays The Detective with authority and force. True, he is beefy and not wiry like a certain famous sleuth he might wish to resemble, but that cannot be held against him. And true, he is often boisterous and combative rather than mellow and sardonic, but this is clearly a directorial choice, and probably not a bad one. Matthew Schrader as The Doctor, to emulate his copyrighted counterpart, achieves a stunning blend of austere British dignity and Vaudevillian shtick—an uneasy combination but balanced masterfully. Karen Saari as Lady Bosom-Heaving is a convincing damsel-in-distress, and probably would be even if White had not saddled her with a distracting Baba Wawa speech impediment. As the vile Iago, Matt Korda could dominate a scene with little more than his menacing bulk, but offers much more indeed, and plays the comic villain to perfection. And the so-called Ensemble—four dauntless actors who do virtually everything, and in double time—are the wheels under the entire production. One in particular distinguishes himself. Just after intermission, while the central character is offstage for what may be a bit too long, Daniel Torres-Rangel takes on Schrader in a choreographed insult-fight which proves to be one of the high points of the show. Overarching the whole is the sometimes-timid, sometimes-effervescent presence of The Narrator, the lovely Jamie England, who never leaves the stage. She serves all the functions of the classical Greek chorus, adapted to comic purposes, and gets off some very choice lines in the process. Neuhaus, who participated in the audition sequence last summer, says that he was thrilled when the cast was posted, and the quality of the performances well justifies his assessment.
You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! plays in a small space and for a very limited initial run. This is unfortunate. On a recent evening, when the show ended, the audience remained in place for several minutes, clearly reluctant to leave. Possibly they were just lulled by their seats—remarkably comfortable for a garage-playhouse. Maybe they expected an encore scene in which the characters would actually wear the large, conspicuous goggles which dangled about their necks for no apparent reason. Or maybe they hoped to visit the K. W. Jeter Club (a setting they had voted down earlier), to learn something of its namesake, a cyberpunk figurehead, a sort of latter-day Jack Kerouac, perhaps, and not exactly a household word. Possibly they wanted to ask stage manager Balke why she kept interrupting the action. Surely many wanted to know whether the “BSI” appended to the name of propmaster Kirk Santis could really denote you-know-what. But most likely, they were just not ready to let go of an outrageously enjoyable night at the theater.
(Review by Little Jimmy Briggs, of the lumber-camps of Michigan and Wisconsin)