COURTESY MANOA VALLEY THEATRE
There's nothing like a good murder mystery, and "Over My Dead Body" is one of those, with laughs.
Murder minus mystery plus mirth
It took two tries to hang the gorilla, but the unexpected mechanical malfunction didn't spoil things a bit as "Over My Dead Body," a genteel tribute to old-style British murder mysteries, opened at Manoa Valley Theatre last Wednesday.
'Over My Dead Body'
Presented by Manoa Valley Theatre:
Place: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Road
Dates and times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays through May 27
Tickets: $25 ($20 for seniors and military; $15 for 25 and younger)
Call: 988-6131 or go online to manoavalleytheatre.com
The tech crew improvised a brief extra scene that took care of things after intermission, and the low-key comic action continued smoothly thereafter. A strong cast and well-written script make this G-rated, drawing-room comedy a best bet for several reasons.
Start with the work of Peter Kamealoha Clark, Walter S. Eccles II and Jo Pruden, who star as the last surviving founding members of the Murder League, an association of murder mystery writers whose hangout is a private club in London. Their specialty is writing traditional English murder mysteries -- in which the victim is found dead in a room locked from the inside, and where clues to the killer's identity are provided throughout the story so keen readers can solve the mystery before the author reveals it.
Unfortunately for the trio -- Trevor Foyle (Clark), Dora Winslow (Pruden) and Bartie Cruikshank (Eccles) -- their meticulously crafted tales of elaborate murders, deftly concealed clues and idiosyncratic sleuths have been eclipsed by the works of a new generation of writers whose hard-core sex-and-violence approach to the genre reflects the mass-market appeal of Mike Hammer and John Shaft rather than Sherlock Holmes.
A chance conversation with Simon Vale, a younger writer whose graphic best-sellers epitomize contemporary sex-and-violence realism, convinces Foyle that the best way for him to rekindle public interest in traditional murder mysteries would be to actually commit one.
Of course, it would have to be a "suicide" in a room that is locked from the inside, and he'd be sure to leave enough clues amid the "red herrings" (false clues) that a good detective will be able to solve the case. Oh yes, and the murder victim would have to be someone who actually deserves to die.
FOYLE MENTIONS his plan to Winslow, the dear friend he once hoped to marry. She immediately agrees to help, and Cruikshank signs on as well. When the trio concludes that Vale's abrasive American agent is a serial killer, they agree that they've found a deserving victim and proceed to put their complicated plan into action.
Of course, this being a comedy rather than a drama, nothing goes as planned.
Clark and Pruden are excellent as the long-time friends for whom love has mellowed but remains dormant. Clark makes a rare and welcome return to the local theater scene playing a time-worn but shrewd old pro who still has plenty of steam left; he adds to the impact of several pivotal moments without saying a word. Pruden is delightful as Doyle's old-time love and closest friend; she, too, does a masterful job with an interesting character. Eccles completes this winning trio with his portrayal of an aging man whose mental faculties are fading but who still has a lot on the ball.
And, although the murder plot spins off on several zany and unanticipated tangents, director Lolly Susi judiciously keeps the farcical aspects from overwhelming the action, and ensures that the protagonists remain sympathetic throughout.
Gerald Altwies is another asset. He does a stellar job as Chambers, the League's elderly butler and unwitting accomplice. Described by another character as a man who is "pouring from a cracked pot," Chambers explains that someone might have taken the key to the locked room from him on the night in question without his being aware of it because "I'm told many things happen to me without my knowledge."
Altwies is such a master of body language and visual comedy that he was greeted with appreciative laughter the first time he walked across the stage.
Elitei Tatafu Jr. utilizes a broader style of physical comedy in his entertaining performance as a stereotypically loud and uncouth American, and Tom Holowach plays Simon Vale with enough of an edge that the would-be murderers' dislike of their younger colleague seems reasonable rather than reactionary.
Stephen Mead adds to the comic action in Act II with his performance as fast-talking Detective Inspector John Smith. Smith tells the trio that he's been a fan of their books for years, comments that "It would be nice to come across one of your murders (in real life)," and then quickly concludes that the death of a man found shot, stabbed and hanging from the ceiling was "obviously suicide."
So much for a complicated and carefully planned murder, artfully planted clues, and good detective work!