BWW Review: I Got MURDERED TO DEATH by John Carroll Theater's Hilarious 1930's Style Murder Mystery
Performing a comic murder mystery take a strong grasp of mixing a soap-opera, verbal acrobatics, satire and quirky characters. For me, films like "Clue the Movie" and Neil Simon's "Murder By Death" are the highest bar by what all murder mysteries are compared too. John Carroll High School Theater recently put up a production of "Murdered to Death" that reaches that bar. Director Joey Plaia is rich in comedy structure. His fine attention to detail clearly provided the young actors much room to enjoy performing these fun characters. The ensemble excelled in sharing stage chemistry in the caliber of great comedies like "Clue", "Murder by Death" and "It's a Mad", "Mad, Mad World." Writer Peter Gordon cooked up this 1930's style comedy/murder mystery. It features a slew of quirky characters that get tossed into a "whodunit" during a dinner party at a ritzy estate in the English countryside. As each character arrives, motives, backstories and weapons are revealed, gradually setting up the path for one of the dinner guests to be "Murdered to Death". Gordon assigns hilarious word play into the guests dialogue. One example is when Mildred says "I love having people over for dinner." Dorothy delivers a dry response "I thought that you preferred mutton." Those classic bits and beats are infused throughout the script.
The suspects of the evening are Mildred (Emma Waits), the owner of the estate who is rich in wealth and moxy. Dorothy (Pierce Prut), Mildred's twenty-ish plain Jane niece. Bunting (Matt Rankin), the dim-witted butler who seems to be older than the house itself. Margaret Craddock (Victoria O'Neal), a sharp and bluntly bitter woman. Colonel Charles Craddock (Dave Huner), Margaret's blowhard of a husband with panache for over sharing. . Elizabeth Hartley-Trumpington (Reed McLean), the young and radiant high society Kardashian of the era. Pierre Marceau (Andrew Wix), a thirty year old French art dealer with an exaggerated accent and demeanor. Joan Maple (Bailey Glasgow), a carbon copy of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's elderly amateur sleuth. Constable Thomkins (Mauree Raby), a fresh out the academy uniformed village policeman. Last but not least is Inspector Pratt (CJ Romano), the witless and clumsy lead detective of the investigation.
Delivering a 1930's period comedy was a challenge for Director Joey Plaia. "It all had to do with the cast. I knew who I had to work with, they all have great comedic timing." He worked extensively with the cast to achieve proper British and Standard English dialects of various classes. It was an ambitious feat to take on but the cast delivered an impressive grasp of language. The classes on English dialects Plaia took while attending The University of Southern Mississippi aided his rehearsals. "I took all my notes and spent a few weeks teaching and rehearsing phonetic alphabet, and how to do the British, French and cockney dialects. Once they got the hang of it, I would just make corrections here and there in rehearsals." He has a great deal of pride in his students overcoming some of the early challenges in the show. "It was a little tough at first. I was pushing them to go too far so I could pull them back to the right place. Some of them had no problem, like CJ for example. He's got such high energy. All of his moves are very staccato. Others were trying to figure out how far to go. The most challenging thing was perfecting all the pauses, the beats set ups and punch lines. We rehearsed them over and over to get the perfect time. One of the things I touched on is for them to play the characters as if they are real to them. I wanted them not to play the comedy, but let the comedy come from their character in a real situation.
I was able to gather the cast after the performance to get some insight on their experience. I asked how was it putting these characters together.
Matt Ranking - "It was a bit weird cuz my personality is normally super happy and I tend to laugh a lot. Bunting is entire opposite of that. He is such a stoic character who never shows emotion. I had to really struggle not to break character while watching everyone else in the cast. This was my first stage production. I didn't know I was capable of doing a comedic character. When Mr. Plaia cast me I thought well, maybe I can do this."
CJ Romano - "I really enjoyed it. Playing a big and loud character comes naturally to me. I got my inspiration from watching a lot of good detective comedies like Austin Powers and Ace Ventura." Romano gave high-energy character work, giving full commitment to the bumbling inspector. "This role really challenged me. These were the most lines I have ever had to learn. Theses lines had a lot of alliteration and it challenged me to enunciate and project more. I feel better about that now."
Maree Raby - "This is my first actual play, it was kinda hard. When I came into the audition I was so scared and nervous. I actually thought I wasn't going to make it into the show. When I got cast I had to stop and say " hold up, what's going on here?" CJ helped me through out the whole way. He gave me tips on enunciating and pronouncing words. Projecting was my biggest issue to get over. At first I was stumbling over a whole bunch of lines."
Andrew Wix - "It was difficult at first getting used to going from French dialect to Standard British. Developing how Pierre moves around on stage in character was also hard at first." Wix's stylized body language was comically snobby and wispy.
Victoria O'Neil - "It was really fun to play someone different from me. I am a very nice person so getting to play the role of the killer and finding her motivation was a ton of fun. Getting the proper English dialect was hard. I struggled with the same words at every rehearsal. I just kept working with it and trying to make the dialect better. I think I did a pretty good job."
Peirce Pruet - "The hardest part I found in the character was discovering how to cry obnoxiously. Pruet played the straight role in the comedy dynamic. Her dry and composed delivery helped the cast with a springboard of normalcy to play off of.
Reed McLaine - "It was really hard but I got help from watching a lot of Bellatrix from Harry Potter. I wish there was more time on stage for me to switch the dialects." She gave an impressive performance of her characters duality. She showed great skill switching high society posture, demeanor and dialect to a streetwise cockney with a snap of a finger.
Emma Waits - "It was great to embrace my elderly self" the teenager says with a laugh. "It was an amazing experience to channel something I have never done before. It was a challenge being very proper, trying to impress the guests and being put together all of the time."
Baley Glasgow - "Researching the my character was not that hard because she is based off of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. The hardest part was finding the proper balance between proper and insanity. I am naturally a kind of a crazy person. That I can channel that easily. Trying to be proper and finding when my character needed to be crazy was really hard. Her voice and posture took a lot of crazy vocal work that we changed up at the last minute."
Director Joey Plaia is doing a great job setting these young actors up for success in theater. "I don't look at these productions as high school theater. I set out and try to do college and semi-professional theater here." This performance showed he is successful in his endeavors. John Carroll Catholic High School should be proud of their theater program. It put up a very impressive and hilarious show. The amount of professional skills shown by this cast of young people made it even more special. Like most theater in Birmingham I wish it had a longer run.
John Carroll Theater
Murdered to Death
Written by Peter Gordon
Directed by Joey Plaia
John Carroll Catholic High School
300 Lakeshore Parkway
Birmingham, AL 35209
November 10 - 13