Saturday, November 12, 2005

Dying on Stage

Tonight I shall be attending a Murder Mystery party hosted by The Singles; I'll try to have a full report on it in a day or so. But first, I thought I'd tell you all about my first Murder Mystery experience.

A couple of years back The Singles decided to host a Murder Mystery dinner; the set-up was a little different from what I was familiar with for these things; instead of having everyone at the party assigned a character and some clues, there was a set script and fixed number of actors who would intermingle with the audience at the beginning of dinner, and then put on a mini-play; I, never being one to shy away from making an ass of myself in a theatrical venue, volunteered to be one of said actors; it would prove to be both an enjoyable and a frustrating experience.

The script that we did was a 1920s gangster theme; I was the hot-headed younger brother of the Don. The basic plot was that someone was sabotaging the Don's business; one by one the suspects get bumped off, until finally it's revealed that it was our cousin, the daughter of the old Don (played by Trouble), tired of being overlooked and ready to establish herself as the Godmother. My character was one of the last three standing; after gunning down one of the final suspects and dragging his body from the room, I would then be honored with a toast from the Don, only to find that the drink was poisoned; I then got to do an over-dramatic “choking, dropping (hard) to my knees, convulsing on the floor” death scene; by far the most spectacular of the on-stage deaths, so I was pretty happy with it . . . during practice. The night of the performance? That's a zoot suit of a different color . . .

I knew the play aspect of the dinner was in trouble when we were only able to get together to practice once before the day of the dinner, and not even all of us could make it then, since one of the actors was out of town; he wound up not getting back until right before the dinner, so we really only had one full run-through, and even then everyone was still carrying their scripts with them the whole time. Now, one thing I've always been gifted at is memorizing stuff, and many years of doing plays and competitive speech and the BSU drama team made me fairly adept at learning lines quickly; I may give a totally wooden line reading, but at least they're going to be the right wooden lines. Most of my fellow actors for this event were lacking this sort of experience, however, and I found myself having to fall back on another skill that I had been forced to cultivate in my acting days: maneuvering everyone back on-script when they would stray. After the total confusion of our first rehearsal, I typed up a streamlined cheat sheet of plot points in the hopes of keeping everyone on track; I wasn't as concerned with the exact dialogue, which, let's be honest, wasn't exactly Shakespeare, so much as making sure that people didn't accidentally jump the gun on key scenes (an oddly appropriate choice of phrasing, as it would turn out). I'm not sure if it did much good in the end, since nobody got the cheat sheets until that final rehearsal, but it made me feel like I was doing my part to stave off total chaos.

The first part of the evening where we just got into character and mingled with the dinner-guests, comprised of other Singles and their family and friends, was lots of fun; I think I do a lot better with my acting when I'm in improv mode; when I'm shackled to a script, my need to be exact in my line delivery takes me out of the moment a bit, whereas a free-flowing improve let me just run with whatever was going on. Had a lot of fun playing the hot-headed, short-fused, bloodthirsty gangster; Papa Lightbulb kept telling everyone I was scaring him. My other favorite aspect of this early section was one of the Singles who had volunteered to be in it, but had been unsure if she could make it, so got assigned an optional character who was mainly there to serve as an additional red herring; of course, since she was an optional character, her name didn't appear in the list of family members in the faux obituary that was printed as part of the story, so she used that fact to make her character a Cellophane-esque paranoid, always trying to be noticed; we all, in turn, kept calling her crazy and telling the guest to ignore her, which would incite cries of indignation on her part; several of the audience members commented afterwards that her character was their favorite part. And then, it was time to start the play itself . . .

From the start, I was having to do damage control; I really don't know how many things got omitted, transposed, or altered during the course of the evening. There are two things in particular that stand out to me. The first involved a note one of the actors was supposed to give the Don at a key moment late in the play; I think he got that piece of paper at least three times before he was supposed to. As she would hand it to him at the wrong time I would try to signal him "Not yet, not yet!", and whether through his own memory or my efforts, he played each of these premature deliveries off as a note from the kitchen about dinner, or something like that; of course, when it really was time for the note to be delivered she missed her cue, and had to be prompted. A minor thing, but it kept me on my toes.

The second thing that sticks in my mind affected me much more directly; we had just reached the scene where I drag the dead body out into the hall and then come back in to get my poisoned drink; however, my Cap'n Cellophane powers must have been running at full steam that evening, because no sooner had I exited the room than the Don and Trouble forgot I existed, and proceeded onto the next scene where she pulls a gun on him and reveals that she was behind it all; enter a confused and bewildered me, who has just come back in ready to go all out in my poison death-throes only to find the play has moved on without me. I think I may have made some sort of exclamation to get their attention, at which point the quick-thinking Trouble trained her gun on me and opened fire; I launched myself backwards into the air and collapsed on the floor; I was so startled by the odd circumstances that I apparently forgot to close my eyes after I "died," which apparently freaked a couple of people out. While I was pleased that Trouble and I were able to roll with it, I was very saddened to miss out on my big death scene; I had bruised the heck out of my knees doing it during rehearsal, and now all of that was for naught. *sigh*

In the end, I really did have a good time doing it, despite everyone doing their best to drive my borderline-OCD to distraction; it was the first time I'd gotten to stretch my dramatic muscles in many a year, which was fun. Tonight's event is of what I think of as the more traditional Murder Mystery variety; as of this moment all anyone has is a brief outline of the crime (rich Baroness murdered), the setting (an auction of her belongings) and a short character description; I'll be playing Jay de Silva, a rich South American who often visits Britain on business, and used to visit the deceased regularly. When we arrive tonight, we'll each be given an envelope with more information and clues; while I'm bummed that I'm not going to be able to utilize my amazing rotating U.K. accent (look, he's a cockney! No, he's a Scot! No, he's one of the Beatles!), being able to just relax into character and not worry about herding all of the other actors should increase my enjoyment by a tremendous amount. Plus, who knows; maybe with all of the excitement, Baby Lightbulb might decide not to wait till his due date on Tuesday to make his grand entrance into the world; now that would make for one heck of an entertaining evening.