Theatre Review: “Murder and Mystery in the Mansion” at the PBHH

On Friday, April 16, 2010, I drove to the Old Northside neighborhood of Indianapolis to see “Murder and Mystery in the Mansion.”  It was presented by Victorian Theatre by Candlelight as a President’s Theatre Production at the President Benjamin Harrison Home.

The show is a unique and very enjoyable evening of theatre: three short mystery plays are presented in three different styles by three different casts under three different directors to three small audiences that rotate to see the plays in three different rooms of the beautiful, historically rich house where our 23rd president lived in the late 1800s.

When I say “small audiences,” I mean that there are only around 20 people in each group.  This makes for a wonderfully intimate experience (and fast sell-outs for the tickets!)

How It Works

You park for free either on the street or in the small parking lot in back of the Home.  Brightly-lit, clean, modern public restrooms are by the parking lot.  (They are only unlocked when the Home is open.)

You walk around through the lovely garden to pay for your ticket on the front porch of the Home.  I am pretty sure that all of the people associated with the Victorian Theatre by Candlelight company are volunteers; this event is a fundraiser for the Home.

After you have your ticket, someone leads you to either the parlour or the dining room on the first floor, or upstairs to the attic ballroom.  There is an elevator for people who can’t manage the steep flights of stairs, but I recommend that you attempt the climb because on the stairs you get to look into some other rooms when you stop to catch your breath.

You see a little play in one room, then someone leads you to the next room and you see another little play, and then everyone goes downstairs to the finished basement for intermission.  Soft drinks, wine, and snacks are available for purchase, with proceeds and tips going to benefit the Home.

After intermission, you find your group leader again and follow him or her to the third little play.  After that, if you wish, you may chat with all of the actors in the dining room.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

I was led first into the parlour to see Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Robert Lanier adapted Poe’s story into a theatre piece for two actors playing multiple roles.  Director James Trofatter plays Edgar Allen Poe himself and someone named Ethan Powell, according to my program.  Donna Wing plays Miss Merran and Miss Gray.  We audience members are medical specialists hearing the story of a patient, I think.

I have never read the original story, unfortunately, and it took me a little while to understand that the two actors were switching back and forth between roles, sometimes simply by turning in another direction and changing their accents and mannerisms but not by exiting and entering.  Once I understood what they were doing, I admired their ability to keep straight the various characters.  I am still not completely sure about what happened in the story, but the atmosphere was definitely creepy and I enjoyed the dark, mysterious tone of the piece.

“Two Bottles of Relish”

In the dining room the theatrical fourth wall is back in place symbolically:  we audience members are observing a story now rather than pretending to be part of it as we were in the parlour.  However, the closeness of the two rows of chairs to the action of the story in the dining room makes it seem as if we are invisible people sitting right inside the apartment of the two bachelors in Lord Dunsany’s mystery story.  We are “on” the “stage” rather than sitting in front of it.  It is a delicious feeling.

“Two Bottles of Relish” was adapted for stage by Edward Darby and directed by Donna Wing.   It is set in England in 1905.  Stephan Viehweg plays David Linley, a careful writer who is working on a history of Scotland Yard (using a wonderful old typewriter, by the way.  Well done, whoever found that prop!) 

I can’t remember if David’s gregarious flat-mate, Willie Smithers (Doug Robinson) is a relish salesman or if he just comes home with a jar of relish one night for them to use on their food, but in any case Willie reads in the newspaper about a murder suspect having bought two jars of that very same relish before the woman he is suspected of killing disappeared.  Willie challenges David, the Scotland Yard expert, to figure out if and how the man killed the woman and what the relish had to do with it.

Susan Townsend plays the flirty-motherly landlady of the two men.  When she brings up their supper, Willie encourages her to join them in their deduction game.  It is fun to try to figure out the puzzle with them.  The answer surprised me!

“The Speckled Band”

For “The Speckled Band,” the attic ballroom is set up like a 1940s radio station and we theatre audience members pretend to be the live radio audience.  When someone holds up the “Applause!” sign, for example, we clap.  The actors come in dressed and chatting with each other as if they are 1940s radio actors arriving to do a job.  We see them not only reading their lines in character but also using a variety of objects to make appropriate sounds to go with them – everything from a train whistle to a pillowcase filled with rustling leaves to a small organ on which the melodious-voiced Announcer, Skip Bunner, plays suspenseful music.

  “The Speckled Band” is a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was adapted for stage by Glenn Carlson and directed by James Trofatter.   Ron Rose plays the earnest Dr. Watson.  Ellis Hall plays the affable Sherlock Holmes.  Jill Murrell and Sue Beecher are hilarious as sisters Helen and Julia respectively.  As with “Two Bottles of Relish,” it is fun to listen to the clues in the story and try to figure out how the crime was accomplished and by whom, but it is even more fun to watch the actors creating the aural effects.

Box Office

“Murder and Mystery in the Mansion” has one more weekend: it runs through this Sunday, May 2, 2010.  For more information and to make a reservation, please call the President Benjamin Harrison Home at 317-631-1888 or visit www.pbhh.org.

There are several other events coming up at the Home, including special tours on Primary Day (May 4) with actors recreating the roles of President Harrison, his family and staff.  I also heard someone sitting next to me say to his wife, “Honey, we should come back for ‘Stroll Into Spring.’”  This six-course progressive dinner will be served at six locations in the historic Old Northside on Friday, May 14, 2010 to benefit the Morris-Butler House Museum and the President Benjamin Harrison Home.

I enjoyed the Victorian Theatre by Candlelight’s fall show in 2008, so I was glad to read that the group will return to the President Benjamin Harrison Home this October with a new fall show called “Ghost Tales of the Witch and Famous,” written by the President Benjamin Harrison Home’s resident playwright, James Trofatter, and featuring Donna Wing.  Donna will also appear in “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” at Oaklandon Civic Theatre this fall.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com, too.

(Photo above is of James Trofatter, left, and Ellis Hall, taken by Ryan Wing.)

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