Theater at Wesleyan comes in many shapes and forms. From ambitious Sondheim musicals at the ’92 Theater to student-written plays at the WestCo Café, each production presents a unique experience to its eager audience. Last weekend, at Psi Upsilon, I was dazzled by Sarah Jacobs ’19’s directorial debut in “The Storm of Mystery.” The short but heartfelt comedy successfully captured the absurd essence of the murder mystery genre and showcased the talents of its fine ensemble and creative team.
Written by Hallie Cantor and Jamie Brew, “The Storm of Mystery” barely deviates from the conventions of a highly predictable murder mystery. However, when highlighting the absurdities of the genre and using them to fuel its comedic engine, the play stands out among many similar titles, without claiming to be superior in solving its mysteries.
It all begins when a former private investigator and an aspiring murder mystery novelist Samuel Marlow (played by Jordan Tragash ’18) plans a dinner party with peculiar guests: famous businessman Harry McCraig (Shane Bannon ’18), his identical twin daughters Carmina and Carmen McCraig (Ramsay Burgess ’20 and Alex O’Shea ’19, respectively) the world-renowned NFL player Petros Pavylchko (Willis Weinstein ’20), elderly acquaintance Agatha Ellis (Sophie Dora Tulchin ’20), and famous private investigator Geraldine Dawes (Ella Larsen ’20).
But for Marlow, the dinner is merely a set-up for a carefully staged murder, an instant recipe for baking a best-selling murder-mystery novel. He appoints his not-so-amused butler Horace (Dan Giovanniello ’17), to be his eyes and ears, recording every occurrence of the evening. In a surprising turn of events, a real murder puts all lives in immediate danger. With a murderer among them, everyone’s a suspect. Yet one thing is for sure: The evening is the perfect storm that Marlow was hoping to brew.
At the heart of this play are the highly entertaining characters, each portraying a stereotype one can often find in a generic murder mystery novel. What is more important is the utmost brilliance of each performer, who enjoyed bringing these characters to life. The ensemble is led by Tragash’s consistent performance, as he braves his way through his many expository monologues with confidence. As Horace, Giovanniello has impeccable chemistry with every character, though he’s best with Marlow in particular, carrying the comedic arc of his often failing attempts to get attention and find love. Tulchin steals the show with her exquisite portrayal of an elderly lady who seems to have had a lifetime of experiences behind her. Her spot-on impressions made the audience giggle and laugh at every turn, making her character the one most likely to be remembered.
Admittedly, Jacobs directed “The Storm of Mystery” while fully realizing the potentials of each character. With the help of assistant director Bisa McDuffie-Thurmond ’19, the cast was deliberately arranged on stage in each scene, every action was performed naturally, and the flow was kept uniform and smooth. During one of the earlier scenes, an audience member is randomly selected to join the cast on stage and play the role of an assistant. While audience participation continues to be a proven gimmick in this genre, Jacobs ensured that the scene was worthy of its format and gave the cast more than enough to play around with, regardless of who ends up on stage from the audience.
The architecture of Psi Upsilon lends itself well to the otherwise minimal set of the play, designed by Jazz Jason ’20. With two armchairs on the sides and a sofa in the middle, there was plenty of space for the cast to roam around. The lighting, designed by Sydney Taylor-Klaus ’20, added a gloomy element to the arising tension onstage, while the sound, designed by Henry Lombino ’18, sparked excitement in Marlow’s eyes with every thunder raising the stakes. The costumes designed by Emily Hilton ’18 and makeup by Celina Bernstein ‘18 worked particularly well with Pavylchko’s flamboyant display, and Ellis’ convincing wig and facial wrinkles.
By the end of its fairly condensed hour-long run, “The Storm of Mystery” is a solid murder mystery play, rather than the parody it was desired to be. The comedy was a pleasant shift from the serious tone of its well-established genre, thanks to Jacobs’ tasteful direction and the cast’s outstanding performance. Jacobs’ directorial debut, considering that she does not pursue directing and academically, is a strong indication that passion and leadership come before experience and training. Now that she successfully tackled the challenges of putting together a murder-mystery comedy in just a few weeks, I’m excited to see what she decides to do next. Until then, I’ll give another read to Agatha Christie’s novels.