As the year draws to a close, I thought I'd write my (probably) final entry on my mystery theatre escapades, as these shows are where I rang in many a New Year. My first two blogs on the subject can be viewed here and here. For anyone new to the party, I once belonged to a dinner theatre company wherein we performed immersive mystery shows, involving the audience in the plot and doubling as the restaurant staff. As is the case with all theatre—especially theatre that involves improv, close proximity to the patrons, and booze—the unexpected was always lurking right around the corner like a salivating troll. Here are some of my fonder memories.
The Show Must Go On
Performers at the company needed to be prepared to jump into any role at any time. I can think of no better example than the night that Mike Jensen had to fill the high heels of one of the supporting female characters. We’d just hired a new actress who was scheduled to make her debut that night, and low and behold she didn’t show. We couldn’t even get her on the phone. We tried calling other actresses, but none were available. We did, however, have a surplus of male actors. So, at the eleventh hour, Mike put on the dress. Hell, if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it was good enough for us.
The character was an over-the-top prima donna to begin with, and the audience enjoyed Mike’s performance in drag. But for me, the best moment was when Mike and I both happened to be offstage, waiting for our next entrance, Mike flipping through the script and scanning the dialogue. Suddenly, he got really excited. He’d come to the line, “I’ve done a hell of a lot more than change my name to get to where I am.”
“I know exactly how I’m going to say that!” he giddily exclaimed.
When the moment finally came, he dropped out of his falsetto voice, going down into a deep bass, and the line suddenly took on a whole other meaning. The audience’s response was a gradual but ultimately very strong laugh as they slowly put two and two together. I will always be grateful that I was witness to the moment that Mike had that spark of inspiration.
As for the dumb-ass actress who baled on us, she wrote us a lengthy e-mail blaming her absence on her alcoholism and making the AA-mandated apology for having wronged us. We laughed at her letter and then never used her again.
What a Pretty Young Lad
Another example of last minute, gender-defying replacements would be Meredith Young’s turn as the show’s young male love interest.
I don’t recall what fiasco caused her to don the pants, though I seem to remember she was given a day or so to learn the part. Dressed in men’s clothes and a wig, the diminutive actress looked like a twelve year old boy. Performing opposite the curvy Briona Daugherty, their relationship carried a strong undercurrent of either lesbianism or pedophilia (or both).
Their kiss at the end of the song “Tipsy Gypsy” was a sight to see. Munchkin Meredith leapt up into Briona’s arms, legs wrapped around her waist, and cried “Big kiss!” before planting one on Briona. It fell somewhere between adorable and disturbing. Whatever the end result, Meredith proved her worth by learning and performing the male role, unwaveringly and without complaint. I miss ya, girl.
A Classy Gentleman
Briona Daugherty and I were chatting with a male patron during the pre-show one night. Briona, playing an up-and-coming 1940s Broadway starlet, asked the gentleman if there was anything she could get for him. “How about a lap dance, honey?” was his charming response, as he pat his lap invitingly. There was only a short pause before she answered, “Hmm, I’m not sure what that is,” and, turning to me, she continued, “but Mr. March is our choreographer. Maybe he could do it and I could watch.”
“Well, I’m not entirely sure what it is, myself,” I said as I positioned myself just astride the patron's knees. “But if you would be kind enough to instruct me, I’d be happy to oblige.” The patron seemed less amused with himself at this point. “Naw, that’s alright,” he backpedalled.
“No, really,” I maintained, “it’s no trouble. I want to learn.”
“Naw, naw, nevermind” the man refused emphatically, waving his hand.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, yeah forget about it.”
I resigned with a shrug. “Alright.”
So, my hat off to Briona for turning that around so elegantly.
Micah Queens Out Over Tea
The dinner break at one particular venue was always a hassle. All the food had to be sent up by elevator to the second floor in metal cabinets, then remain in a closet-sized hallway to be distributed to the performers to bring out to the guests. Orders at this location were consistently wrong or missing, and this interval in the show often went agonizingly long.
One particular evening, while trying to get everyone their food in a timely fashion, I was asked by a woman to bring her some hot tea. While I was happy to oblige, she apparently had little faith that I would remember her request, because she proceeded to let every performer who passed by her table know she wanted hot tea, which meant my fellow actors/servers kept harassing me with the redundant information, “There’s a woman at table one who wants a hot tea.”
These reminders became increasingly irksome as I searched high and low for the goddamn tea bags and little teapots. The kitchen staff had no idea where they were (why would they?). My fellow performers didn’t know where they were. I searched everywhere they ought to have been, and everywhere they ought NOT to have been. Frickin’ Indiana Jones found the Ark of the Covenant faster than I found the damned tea.
But find it I did! I arranged the pot, teabag, spoon, slice of lemon and little packets of honey on a saucer, and carried them out into the dining area to fill with hot water and then bring to the woman for whom they were meant. En route to the water, I ran into my buddy Lisa Enochs. “I got the tea for that lady!” I announced proudly.
“Oh,” said Lisa, “I just brought her some,” at which point I hurled the saucer and all tea-related paraphernalia into the air, exclaiming, “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” then turned on my heels and stormed back out of the dining room.
Later, I felt really bad to have had such a bizarre, shocking, and childish reaction in front of someone who A) was a friend of mine, and B) had done nothing wrong. I went to Lisa to apologize, at which point she told me that my little queen-out moment was the funniest fucking thing she’d ever seen.
So, at least I made somebody laugh.
Do You Speak Romanian?
Unfailingly, if you do a foreign accent in one of these shows, you will have patrons try to speak to you in the corresponding language. Playing a Romanian gypsy in one production, I thought I was fairly safe. How many people in this country actually speak Romanian? I thought.
The answer is a lot.
During my first months with the company, I’d yet to learn the popular go-to answer of “I’m sorry, I’m trying to only speak English while I’m here,” and so went to unnecessary extremes to get out of such predicaments. I remember one guy—American, no trace of an accent, and yet fluent in Romanian for some reason—trying for the length of the show to converse with me in my character’s native tongue. I kept pretending I was busy, or couldn’t hear him over the sound of the live piano. “Let me go ask the piano player if he can play more softly, and I’ll be right back,” I told him. En route to the piano, I passed another actor, and discreetly begged her, “Engage me, engage me, engage me!” “Oh, Mr. March, I had a question for you. Please walk with me.”
But the guy wouldn’t let up. He kept speaking to me in Romanian every time I passed the table. Even after the show, once we’d taken pictures and started cleaning up the restaurant, he was still after me. “I knew it! You don’t speak Romanian!” he taunted. Yes, ladies and gentleman, this super sleuth had proven that I was not actually the person who I pretended to be in the show.
I think what he really wanted was to ask me out, but was too shy.
Another time, I had the misfortune of speaking with a humorless woman who actually was Romanian. By now, the first act was over, and it had been well established what my character’s nationality was. Nevertheless, as I spoke to her table during the dinner break, she inquired, “Where are you supposed to be from?”
“Romania,” I answered.
“No,” she said, flatly, “you’re not,” and then just stared at my evilly.
I think my jaw hung open for about twenty minutes. I don’t even remember what I eventually said to her. All I know is I hope she got mauled by a bear.
It’s called suspension of disbelief, bitch!
Ironically, I did learn to say, “I only speak English in front of my customers,” in German when I assumed a different role in the same show, and guess what? Not one person tried to speak to me in German. God, why do you hate me so? Is it because my hair is prettier than your son’s?
This story isn’t so much about the show as it is about something truly horrific that happened sort of peripherally to the company (and my own complete lack of sensitivity). There was an actor who worked with the company for a while who was generally considered by everyone to be a friendly, soft-spoken fellow. His name was Dan Wozniak. Go ahead and Google his name. You’ll find that he horribly murdered two people; the first was a friend of his, whom he shot in the back of the head in order to steal his bank card (the “friend” had recently come into some money). The second was the first victim’s girlfriend, whom Dan lured to her dead boyfriend’s apartment with a message from her boyfriend’s cell phone. He then proceeded to hack the bodies into pieces and leave a series of human geocaches all over Long Beach. THEN, so I’m told, he went to the wrap party for another show he’d just finished (“Nine,” I’ve been informed), and casually chatted with his fellow cast members while the dismembered body parts of his victims fed the conqueror worm. Seriously, Hannibal Lecter would be proud.
I’m also Equity!
Now, I never actually met this guy. He left the company just as I was joining, and if we did happen to catch a fleeting glimpse of one another at one of my early rehearsals, we certainly took no note of each other. However, as I was driving to rehearsal for a new show one morning, I got a call from my sister informing me that this guy that most of the cast knew had been arrested for a double homicide. “I just wanted you to know what you’re walking into,” she warned me. Sure enough, the tone of that rehearsal was very surreal, awkward, and surprisingly quiet for a group of actors.
When we broke for lunch, the lot of us sat around a table, chewing our food in solemn silence. I decided that this period of respectful melancholy had gone on long enough, and so I commented, “Man. For a murder mystery company, we suck at detecting.”
The tension broke immediately with peals of incredulous but much needed laughter. And from there the floodgate of horrible jokes was opened amongst the cast.
I also do weddings.
Fear the Audience
During photos after the show one night, a couple asked us if we would meet them after strike for drinks. They kept telling us how special we had made their anniversary, and the wife insisted on buying a round for everybody. “Sure thing,” we all said. However, as we all prepared to leave after striking the set, it seemed that no one in the cast was serious about meeting up with the two.
Not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, I decided to go, and managed to talk my sister Laura into accompanying me. We met up with the couple and wound up in a bar together at the Mission Inn (where the two had a room waiting for them upstairs). We were then bombarded with personal information of an explicit nature by the wife, while the husband waited with ever decreasing patience to go upstairs. Eventually, Laura and I called it a night, whereupon the now inebriated wife invited us to come upstairs with them, and forced us to look at pictures of her husband’s genitalia on her phone, as though this would entice us to accept. Impressive though his features were, we kindly passed on the invitation and, with a sudden need to scrub our eyeballs, started for the parking lot.
Suddenly, the wife became frighteningly protective of my younger sister, whom she’d adopted as her new best friend, and wouldn’t allow her to walk back to her car alone with me. “I don’t know you,” she told me. “I don’t know that you’re really her brother. I love this girl. If I ever thought you were going to do anything bad to her, I’d fucking kill you!” Fortunately for us, another woman in the bar that Psycho Wife had become beholden to had gone staggering off with a group of men, and our crazy admirer was suddenly torn between which woman to lend her protection to. Her husband was useless at this point, as he just wanted to go upstairs and get laid. So, she was forced to go after her other new best friend, reluctantly taking my word for it that I was indeed Laura’s brother and had no intentions of raping her. The second she was gone, we ran for our cars.
And that’s the night I learned never to go out with members of the audience.
Here’s to all the memories, good and bad!