One incredibly entertaining show.
Even though the totally-not-Sherlock Holmes protagonist would rail against the very thought, the truth is that the mystery isn't the most important part of the newest original play at Mercury Players Theatre, You've Ruined A Perfectly Good Mystery!. It stars the suspiciously familiar duo of a genius British detective and his doctor sidekick, and it involves the finding of clues and the foiling of nefarious plans, yes -- but this adventure is less about making audience members work out a convoluted plot than it is about getting them to laugh. It succeeds admirably.
Writers Rick Stemm and Christian Neuhaus fleshed out their somewhat zany, extremely literary, and completely fun short, originally conceived as part of Mercury's 24-hour Blitz playwriting challenge, to create this unique choose-your-own-adventure theatrical romp, which had its world premiere Thursday night at the intimate, charmingly ramshackle MercLab space.
Allowed to more fully expand on the initial concept, Stemm, Neuhaus and director Sam D. White have created one incredibly entertaining show that supplies wordplay (anagrams, alliteration, pained similes), bawdy humor (limerick, innuendo), literary allusions (Shakespeare, Conan Doyle -- natch) and even pop culture references (Monty Python, the Spice Girls) by the bucketful. Visually, this new version adopts a steampunk aesthetic, with Sydney Krieger's costume design mixing Victorian-era chic with brass goggles, gears, keys and other doodads.
Under most circumstances, something like this might collapse under the weight of its own self-awareness, but here it works in keeping the audience not only actively involved in the occasional decision, but also thoroughly engaged. If you don't catch one reference, you're likely to bag one just a moment later. Or to be lambasted by an actor for missing the point entirely.
Aiding in this accomplishment is a remarkably strong cast. As the affable but slightly loopy Narrator, Jamie England is wonderfully silly and sympathetic. Though her chapter transitions are often pained and more than a little ridiculous (for instance, "They rushed in like two Russians to a Rush concert!"), you can't help but want her yarn-spinning efforts to succeed. Christopher Younggren's Detective is all cocksure smarts and reason, more often than not putting him at odds with the Narrator as he tries to solve the mystery in his own, non-audience-dependent way. And in the middle of this tug of war is the Doctor, played with gusto and considerable charm by Matthew A. Schrader.
Central to the success of the show, all three also handle the improvisational elements with relative ease, playing off the audience and each other with a naturalness that makes the proceedings feel comfortable and lived-in. This is despite the fact that, because of the nature of choose-your-own-adventure, the course of the performance can't ever entirely be set in stone.
Having played the Narrator in the original Blitz cast, Karen Saari this time returns in the role of "salubrious voluptuary" Lady Bosom-Heaving, affecting a Life of Brian-esque lisp and seducing a very willing Doctor along the way. And continuing the play's tradition of ridiculous character names, Matt Korda's Iago Von Evilton is a great caricature of the old mad German scientist trope.
Notable, too, are the ensemble members (Colin FX, Tim Irvin, Veronica Raulin, and Daniel Torres-Rangel), each of whom pulls innumerable duties as every other character in the show. They brought delightful detail to the stage as everything from saucy Irishmen to scenery, from lunatics to furniture.
It's impressive to watch actors move and adapt relatively seamlessly to a somewhat unpredictable story and audience. Yes, there are usually only two or three possible plot choices to be made -- sex or drugs? Ireland or France? -- but that's two or three times the amount of lines that need to be memorized.
What separates You've Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! from traditional plays on the one hand and dinner murder-mystery events on the other is that the concept never feels contrived. It's clear that the actors and crew behind the show are having fun and possess enough talent to make the sometimes raucous audience interaction work to everyone's advantage.
The show strikes a rare balance between not taking itself at all seriously and having the professionalism required to make it work. Younggren frequently takes spectators to task for their choices and comments, but always in a playful way that only seems to further egg people on. Since the fourth wall is broken from the first moment, the occasional flubbed bits are easily covered with a cool nod and wink.
The fast-moving and changeable nature of the play appeared to catch up with the actors in just a few places. Gaps and pauses -- whether intentional or from forgotten lines -- became especially noticeable and somewhat uncomfortable. Too, the sound and light operators seemed in places to have slight trouble keeping up with cues. The show could definitely use a little tightening.
But it's like the Narrator says to the Detective as he's ready to storm out of the show entirely in frustration: "A rough-around-the-edges mystery is better than no mystery at all."