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No Mystery but Laughs Aplenty in ‘Murder Mystery’ PLUS 6 Plays Opening This Week

murder mystery
The ladies of Checkmate Manor await another murder in "The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery.

A farce is a comedy when it’s done right, but it’s a tragedy when it’s done wrong. The Theatre in the Heights company pretty much gets it right in its production of “The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery.”

The play is one of 10 “Farndale Avenue…” farces by the British writing team of David McGillivray and Walter Zirlin Jr. The conceit of the plays is that a small community theater group — the Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society — produces shows that invariably go wrong, in generally hilarious ways. The writing duo had tackled versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” among others, and was working on a comedy “Wizard of Oz” when Zirlin died in 2001. It remains unfinished.

“Murder Mystery” is one of the playwrights’ more familiar works, perhaps because any community theater group can identify with the miscues and missteps that befall the ladies of the Dramatic Society.  Problems begin even before the play begins when a  piece of scenery falls and has to be secured (upside down, it appears) by stage manager Gordon (Brian Boyle, delightfully deadpan and dumbfounded) .  Poor Gordon, who has no acting experience, is forced to perform in place of an absent actor.

Gordon plays a detective who is called to Checkmate Manor when one of  the residents is murdered. It’s not long before another family member dies, and then another. The mystery, of course, is the identity of the murderer — and his, or her, motive. But that question becomes less relevant as the play continues. At some point, some scenes are arbitrarily cut because nobody’s interested in that, anyway.

The gist of the play-within-the-play is that members of the family of Checkmate Manor have gathered for the reading of the late patriarch’s will. Each hopes to profit from the inheritance but no one knows who will get what — if anything. As the bodies mount, the survivors’ odds of winning seem to improve.

Tom Bost, in his directorial debut with the small and relatively new theater company, has assembled a game and capable cast to perform the play that is fraught with opportunities to fail. The script includes intentional mishaps, missed cues, sight gags (a stair that leads to a solid wall), and “dead” bodies that can’t be left onstage because the actor also portrays other characters who aren’t  “dead” yet.

The accents are broad (generally a plus for inexperienced actors), and the comedy is slapstick and sometimes stupid. It’s not easy to be consistently wrong on stage, but this cast is about as “wrong” as they can be. Shirley Sayers is ingratiating as Mrs. Reese, the society’s spokesperson and host of the presentation. She also plays characters in the production. Laure Olson and Ronnie Duska Fowler play Audrey and Thelma, respectively, and other members of the family gathered for the reading of the will. Shana McCarl plays Felicity but also — in a performance of special merit — Pawn the butler.

“The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery” continues a 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through May 5 at Theatre in the Heights, 8215 Auburn Blvd., Citrus Heights. Tickets are $15.

For tickets or for more information, call (916) 509-3445 or go to TheatreintheHeights.com.

Stages Are Getting Busy

It’s going to take some scheduling to get to all the plays opening in the next week or so. Here’s a look at some of them:

  • “Holmes and Watson,” a new mystery in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, began previews this week at B Street Theatre in the Sofia arts complex, 2700 Capital Ave. The play’s official opening Friday, April 19/ It will run through May 26.
  • The Broadway Series touring production of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” will be at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., for five performances only, Thursday-Sunday (April 18-21).
  • “Disaster!,” a musical tribute to such classic disaster movies as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” runs April 17-May 12 at Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St. Official opening night is Saturday, April 20.
  • “Carrie, the Musical,” based on the famous novel and frightening movie, will run April 26-May 19 at City Theatre on the Sacramento City College campus.
  • The Falcon’s Eye Theatre at Folsom Lake College will present an original adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” April 26-May 12 in the Harris Center for the Arts on campus. About 50 characters, some live actors, some puppets and some animated will be employed in the production.
  • The Sacramento premiere of “The Other Place, featuring Melinda Parrett and Jonathan Rhys Williams, will run May 1-June 2 at Capital Stage, 2215 J St.

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About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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