Few genres of storytelling are as equally essential to us as horror. Together with science fiction and fantasy (those well-loved genres often demeaned by self-styled purists for being of lesser value than “real” theatre, literature, etc.), horror invokes intense sensations through fantastical representations of real-life fears so we may experience these anxieties in a safe environment. Whether it is something as massive as the fear of encroaching war or as minuscule as a fear of the dark, horror prepares us for the monsters in plain sight. That is not to say all horror is serious business. Far from it. I’ll wager most of you have enjoyed the delightful, campy horror often attributed to the mysteries of the 1940s and the slashers of the 1980s, I know I have. Much like the comedic relief in Shakespeare’s tragedies, a healthy dose of joviality contrasts well with morbid scenarios. With the end of October right around the corner it’s the perfect time for theatres to produce tales of murder, monsters, and mayhem that naturally draw individuals of varying tastes during this delightfully macabre season. It only makes sense to produce a murder mystery this time of year; who doesn’t love a good mystery around Halloween?
Inspired by the mystery movies of the 1930s and 40s (particularly Bob Hope’s 1939 film The Cat and the Canary), John Bishop’s 1987 murder mystery comedy The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 tells of an eccentric producer’s misguided attempt to catch the Stage Door Slasher, a murderer on the loose, by inviting a production crew, whose previous play was the target of the Slasher, to her remote estate under the guise of a backer’s audition, believing the killer to be among the guests. What follows is a farcical romp complete with mistaken identities, secret passageways, and (of course) murder.
The tone for the production is set immediately as we witness an onstage murder and the killer’s bumbling attempts to hide the body in various locations, the entirety of which is accompanied by Chris McKnight’s skillful lighting allowing the audience to witness the events while keeping them literally in the dark enough so as to hide the assailant in shadows. The one-room set, constructed by Andy Berkovsky, was successful in utilizing the City Theatre’s space, leaving room for the ten-person cast to move among one another without cluttering the space, and effectively keeping some of its hidden passages a secret. However, it lacks the tidiness seen in their previous work, such as the recent production of Love Alone.
With an ensemble of ten actors much of the production weighed on the cast’s chemistry with one another. As a whole they work well off of one another, but individually there was much to be desired. Many of the comedic moments dependent on characters’ accents leading to the mispronunciation of words fell flat due to accents wavering throughout the production. Many of the actors gave lackluster performances with none guiltier than Eva McQuade and Ameer Mobarak (music/lyrics duo Bernice Roth and Roger Hopewell respectively). The duo’s attempts at comedy often fell flat with McQuade (as the “hysterical character” archetype in horror) either underacting or annoyingly shrieking in terror, and Mobarak never fully engaging in the characters’ plight. Other cast members were stronger though not outstanding. Heather Bullard (Elsa von Grossenknueten) and Kevin Moxley (Ken de la Maize) were enjoyable onstage though both felt a little one-note throughout, Bullard as the eccentric, espionage-loving producer, and Moxley as the pompous, egotistical director. Again, the ensemble worked as one unit, artfully blocked by director Bridget Farias Gates, but many scenes involving few cast members left me wanting.
As a murder mystery one should expect twists and turns in this play, but I cannot deny I felt a little bombarded by the volume of reveals thrown at the audience in Act II. I understand that this is meant to parody the prevalence of plot twists found in horror (especially murder mysteries) and I will admit I laughed at the suddenness of some of them, but the intensity with which Bishop adds twists in the last 30 minutes made me pause to consider how deep down the parody well we’ve fallen. On a related note, I must bring to light one costuming choice made by Farias, as director and costume designer, which could not escape my attention. There’s a moment in Act II (not attempting to spoil anything here) in which the as-yet-to-be-revealed killer is onstage in near darkness stalking another character with a knife. To hide their identity, the killer wears another outfit, jacket, and mask over their typical costume. It would have worked well except for a few obvious pieces of the character’s actual costume still visible amidst the disguise, thus prematurely revealing their identity. There are plenty of mysteries in the production, but the central one is naturally the identity of the killer. I still enjoyed the discovery as it occurred, but that one slip up did leave my inner-sleuth a little disappointed.
When it’s all said and done I can still recommend The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 as a delightful celebration of this most horrifying time of year. Regardless of its handful of flat performances, I was still engaged enough in the plot to want to know how it was going to end. True, the plot probably took a few too many turns to reach its destination, but isn’t that the fun of a mystery? You never know where you’ll find yourself in the end.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 continues playing at The City Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until November 15th.
★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩