Life is full of spoilers. So is this review. I hate that I have to keep saying this, but people seem to want reviews that tell them everything they need to know to decide if they want to see a show or not without actually telling them anything substantial about the show itself. I don’t write those kind of reviews.
Fall theatre season is upon us and kicking it all off is the Great Grand Forks Community Theatre’s production of Done To Death by Fred Carmichael; of course, ETC already opened their 2015-16 season with Into The Woods in early August, but when a show opens at the tail end of summer, before school starts and when the AC is still going strong, it feels more like an entertaining distraction than the start to a season of theatrical delights. As I mentioned in my initial announcement for the show, this year the GGFCT played it safe and stuck to familiar territory: like last year’s season opener, You Have The Right To Remain Dead, Done To Death is a campy whodunit mystery that often breaks the fourth wall and is once again directed by C.J. Leigh and again features the adorable David Watnemoe meeting his untimely demise. If you’re going to do a show that so clearly resembles another show you’ve done recently, especially if you put them in the same spot in your season, then you’d better be open to some comparisons between the two. And you’d better hope that your new show is better than the last.
Luckily for Leigh and his cast, it is.
That’s not to say that You Have The Right… wasn’t a delightfully entertaining show (it was), but Done To Death is just a slightly more polished piece and it better utilizes low camp and a well-crafted period setting (mid-1960s to early 1970s one assumes from the dialogue, though this could have been made more explicit in the program to help orient the audience) to create a cheeky piece of theatre that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The premise is simple: 5 mystery writers who were once the pinnacles of their particular sub-genres but whose popularity is somewhat waning have been summoned to a meeting at an old soundstage to meet one another and begin collaborative work on a television project. The show’s producer, Jason Summers (David Watnemoe), introduces the writers to each other and to the audience. This is where the show has the most obvious similarity to You Have The Right… where Watnemoe’s Harnell Chesterton addressed the audience of a play-within-a-play to explain the mechanics of the show before winding up dead. In both shows, Watnemoe’s role is to break the fourth wall and address the audience, giving a little bit of exposition as well as some cleverly hidden clues to the show’s final dénouement, before being handily dispatched by an unknown killer. Both also use the device of narrative entertainment to craft their story (a stage play for the earlier show, and a television show for the current production). The 5 authors and their unique styles are integral to the narrative of the show.
Whitney and Jessica Olive (Brad Werner and Ruth Pederson) are a bubbly, sociable couple known for their sophisticated (read: tame) mysteries that are as well known for their abundance of galas and clever wordplay as they are for their lack of sex and violence. The two prefer to never be without a martini in hand, and keep up a rather lightly spirited banter even as the bodies begin to pile up. Werner and Pederson have a fun, enjoyable chemistry as the annoyingly upbeat Olives, the ineffectual “society man” and his spirited terrier of a wife.
Mildred Z. Maxwell (Amy Driscoll) is known for her intricately plotted mysteries and their expertly executed twist endings – sort of an Agatha Christie meets M. Night Shyamalan type (but good Sixth Sense Shyamalan, not tragic The Happening Shyamalan). Driscoll’s portrayal is crisp and acerbic, giving the grand dame of the murder mystery an acid tongue and an abundance of pride, which is very easily offended by her new collaborators.
Introducing a James Bond-esque spy element to the genre is Brad Benedict (Kevin Kemarly), a character meant to represent the evolution of the mystery into the realm of espionage and gadgetry. Kemarly’s interpretation of the character is a bit overdone; his Benedict is a sniveling nerd awed by technology who imagines himself a suave superspy. This juxtaposition could have been quite clever if it had been painted in somewhat lighter strokes, but he instead chooses to push it to the point of ridiculousness and he ends up chewing more scenery than a great white during Shark Week. Kemarly did do some rather stunning work with the props on the show, and one hopes that in future outings he’ll bring the same eye for precision to his character that he brings to his technical work.
Rounding out the collection of authors is Rodney Duckton (Greg Jones), a man’s man type of writer who started in the monster horror genre and moved into noir thrillers a la The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. His characters are always cool and calm, sipping their liquor and kissing the dames, and Jones’ portrayal of the gruff Duckton is part Hemingway, part John Wayne, and part meek English professor whose macho exterior may all just be a well-constructed act.
Throughout the show, the writers often slip into their imaginations to tell either their own version of the story or their interpretation of another author’s style, and these imaginative moments are some of the best in the show. As they narrate, the other authors and some versatile supporting performers (including Laura Nelson, Patrick Pearson, Chris Gust, and Drew Rosenbaum) act out the scenarios, allowing the sometimes type-driven characters to explore new dynamics. I thought newcomer Nelson was especially charming in fantasy roles as a stone cold rich bitch, the blushing ingénue who falls victim to a terrible monster, and a sexy double-agent, and Rosenbaum’s cheeky moments providing the “dialogue” for a silent movie scene are the perfect balance of campy and clever.
Once the show moves into Act 2, first Summers and then a series of other supporting characters are killed off one by one, and it’s up to the odd personalities and preening egos of our five authors to solve the mystery before all of their chapters are cut short by the mysterious killer. The ending has a twist, as one might expect, and though I might have wanted something a little more outrageous with a few more fireworks, it was generally satisfying and not easily to guess.
It’s a shame to have all of these talented authors and not a single editor: the show runs a bit too long and the script definitely has its slow, plodding moments. But overall the final package is an entertaining one to kick off the Fire Hall Theatre’s new season, “Mysteries & Musicals.” There is even a brief cameo by GGFCT Executive Director Kathy Coudle-King. And while the show may seem a little bit like a flashback to last year’s season opener, the deja vu is more pleasant than not and the cast delivers a fresh take on the campy murder mystery that won’t leave you feeling as if the whole thing has been done…to death.
Done to Death plays at the Fire Hall Theatre this weekend and next with shows at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; there is also a Sunday Matinee at 2 pm on the 20th. Tickets are $15; students, seniors, military, and snarky drag queens who fancy themselves theatre reviewers are eligible for discounted tickets.
Tags: Amy Driscoll, Brad Werner, C. J. Leigh, Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris Gust, community theatre, David Watnemoe, Done to Death, Drew Rosenbaum, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Fred Carmichael, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Greg Jones, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Kevin Kemarly, Laura Nelson, Miss Jaye, Patrick Frost Pearson, Patrick Pearson, Ruther Pederson, World of Champagne, You Have The Right To Remain Dead