One thing about Fringe Festival is that it encourages experimentation among the already experimental crowd of off-off-Broadway and regional theatre troops from around the country. You can read more about their developmental process here, really quite fascinating actually. This piece is interesting in part because of the comedy interwoven into the structure (a fun mix of parody and literary criticism), but more importantly the methodologies of how the story is told (using audience participation) are worth going to the play by themselves. Mercury Rep, a Madison, Wisconsin based company, has been a past fringe favorite, and they get a chance to make their mark this year again. You’ve Ruined A Perfectly Good Mystery! is truly is a good example of the type of theatre that the New York International Fringe Festival exposes to a larger audience.
In some ways this performance acts like your standard parody play where the characters in the play are aware that they are, in fact, fictional characters. In this case the characters at the core of this play are Sherlock Holmes (played by Christopher Younggren) and his collegue in crime fighting Watson (played by Matthew Schrader). To avoid copy-write infringement (and to add to the humor) they are referred to as The Detective and The Doctor as well as some long and convoluted silly sounding names.
But more important than the characters which are the raw ingredients for this play, the play starts with The Narrator played by Jamie England. She enters the play by introducing us to our heroes and informs the characters (and audience) that this will be a “chose your own adventure” adventure. She’s (overly) enthusiastic, full of witty puns, and dedicated to the deepest conventions of having the story go exactly as she wants even if her own characters disagree vehemently.
The Detective would rather test his wits and figure out the answer instantly himself but is stopped by the narrator.
Add to the mix, Liz Angle as Lady Bosom-Heaving whose father Lord Heaving, a prominent inventor and scientist, has been kidnapped. She asks our heroes for help and a romance begins to blossom between her and the Doctor. The Doctor is dashing and charming very often you’ll find yourself rooting for him time and again. The villain of this story is Iago Von Evilton played by Matthew Korda - a smart villain who has plans to take over the world via Mind Control, Ghosts, or Robots depending on how you choose. He also interacts with the Narrator but as a villain doesn’t play as nice and usually does what he wants regardless of what the Narrator tries telling him.
There is an ensemble that plays everything from a sexy maid to kurukos of various sorts (there is a recurring role for a windy door in the play) or funny Irish and French characters, to the crazy Lord Heaving to whatever abomination Iago VonEvilton is destined to pit against our heroes. This ensemble is played by Tim Irvin, Andrea Kleiner, Paul Milisch, Veronica Raulin, and Colin Woolston.
The costumes by Sydney Krieger are great at setting the period as well using flamboyancy to comedic effect. The set by Tim Irvin, Bryan Streich, and Veronica Raulin is basic but extremely functional and with the actors versatility gives us a very real illusion of traveling the vast distances mentioned throughout the play. The props by Kirk Stanti are laugh-out-loud funny, whether it is the giant magnifying glass or the various clouds and trees and bushes that are moved about via kuruko in various scenes.
Generally being part of the audience is fun, as you shout out your favorite direction at various parts of the show (Drugs or Sex, Ireland or France and a few more) but other times a bit disappointing or maybe even a bit scary when we realize that we don’t have the control we thought we had, or when our choices have unexpected and unsatisfying results. Various cult references, notably “walk this way” among others were scattered throughout and may very well be different on different nights due to the variance in plot from the “Choose Your own Adventure” angle.
When we the audience enter into a dialogue with live theatre, especially when the audience Chooses the Adventure, there often can be some rough spots. And I think that some were purposefully inserted so we might analyze over what might be the best way to have an interactive play, or to get a groan rather than a laugh as something was pushed too far. If there is any problem that I had with the performance I saw, it might have been that there was actually a few too many things to think or laugh about, that the plot was too overcome by the meta-narrative. The advice I would give to the writers would be to tighten it up just a bit so that a few less jokes made a bit more impact. The direction by Sam D. White is in general great at showing the confusion of the characters as they are overwhelmed with having to deal with plot forces they have not had to deal with before, but perhaps a moment or two more where when the actors are being emotionally moved by the events surrounding them among the flurry of gimmicks bombarding them, to have a moment or two more of conviction before being jolted back into frenetic action.
At the end the real question is who is the “You” in the title? Who ruined the perfectly good mystery? Is it the Narrator or is it the audience? Is a predictable plot better than an unpredictable plot? Can you select the series of choices to get partial nudity on your night? Can you make the Detective happy with your choices? Who are you rooting for? The “good guys” or the “bad guys”?
These questions and more may be answered if you go to see the final performance tonight at 8:30. Will you go? Choose your own adventure!