All manner of mystery

Locally-produced play hits stage of historic theater

Locally-produced play hits stage of historic theater

March 13, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

There has been a murder at the manor, and all manner of mystery is breaking out.

Amongst them, what in Columbo's raincoat is up with the candy cigarette-smoking inspector?

Yup, this whodunit may have begun with a scream in the night, but it's the audience that'll be howling when all is said and done.

At least, that's the idea. A week and a half before the Star Theatre curtain rises on Marcus Steinour's "Scream in the Night," Joe Spirko's cast is still finding the funny.

"You need to really time the line in a sense, so that the jokes are not missed. There are a lot of puns in this piece, but I've hired good actors that have the timing down," Spirko says. "If the timing is not right, the jokes are lost, the comedy doesn't come through."


On the Mercersburg, Pa., theater's stage, the mystery's afoot, as the Morbid Manor's bumbling denizens stumble across a newly deceased woman at 3 a.m. Unfolding at the crime scene during the next 20 hours is a madcap mixture of comedy, physical and cerebral, coupled with the spine-tingling suspense (hopefully) of deducing who killed Lady Stephanie Brancaster in the parlor with the ... well, that's part of the mystery.

"Scream in the Night," presented by Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts and Cumberland Valley School of Music, premieres at 8 p.m. Friday, March 14, with additional shows Saturday, March 15, and Sunday, March 16.

Featuring a handful of local actors, "Scream" was written by Pennsylvania resident Steinour, a retired Letterkenny Army Depot computer programmer and administrator who yearns for the written word.

And not just any prose; for Steinour, who scribed his first one-act show in 1960, the play's the thing.

"I just always wanted to write, especially plays," the writer-producer says before rehearsal. "I tried other things, but I don't like anything else."

A writer of two dozen scripts, his stab at mystery with a funny bone took shape in 1997. That July, "Scream" was the subject of a public reading by Chambersburg Community Theater. The following year, it was performed in New York City at an off-off-Broadway theater as part of a developmental series showcase.

When writing his first draft in six weeks, Steinour says, the marriage of mayhem and funny business was to die for.

"I wanted to spoof all those things you see so many times in other movies and plays," he says. "The old, dark manor house with its staff, the sinister butler, the cranky maid, the police inspector."

Boonsboro resident Beth Hoover, as aspiring actress/poet/amateur detective Veronica Fox, says what makes this "Night" a scream is the writing, which gives each character sharp dialogue, with a unique spin.

Take the Clouseau-esque Inspector Wells, a role that allows Mercersburg resident Jim Gerberding to goof on a character he has played several times.

Addicted to candy cigs and packing a pocket dictionary - among other words, his vocabulary does not include the term "ambidextrous" - the actor gets a charge out of bringing life to a show audiences have never seen before.

It is a sharp contrast to many local theater offerings, beloved comic, tragic or dramatic tales crowds are well-versed in.

"In acting, unlike movies, you build up a level of presence with the audience, and a lot of your performance depends on how the audience is reacting to the show," Gerberding says. "If it's an old familiar show, people won't get as up, there is not as much magic to it."

On this dark but not so stormy night, Spirko's cast, which includes the director as butler Roderick Radcliff, is taking it from the top. Steinour sits in the front row, providing line prompts when necessary.

There are no giggles to be had, let alone a chuckle, a chortle or a guffaw. But that's OK.

Gerberding says after the first few readings, the cast is so used to the punch lines they need a live audience to determine what works and what fizzles. And Steinour is pleased with this troupe's attention to the show's physical comedy, something the New York version cut back on.

For Spirko, balancing comedy and mystery is a welcome puzzler of his own. The show is similar to an interactive murder mystery but without direct interaction, though characters do break the fourth wall to speak toward the audience.

He hopes audiences have a devilishly good time. He has.

"I need to be challenged," he says. "That's why I do shows. I like to see something on stage, put something on stage and make it work. I hope 'Scream in the Night' works."

"Scream in the Night," an original play by Marcus Steinour presented by Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts and Cumberland Valley School of Music

8 p.m. Friday, March 14, and Saturday, March 15; 3 p.m. Sunday, March 16

Star Theatre

23 W. Seminary St.

Mercersburg, Pa.

Tickets cost $12 in advance, $15 at the door and $11 for students and seniors.

For information, call 1-717-261-1220, 1-717-328-5827 or go to on the Web.

Directions from Hagerstown: Take I-81 north to U.S. 11 exit. Follow U.S. 11 toward Greencastle, Pa. At the intersection of U.S. 11 and U.S. 16, take a left onto U.S. 16. Follow U.S. 16 into the center of Mercersburg. Take a left onto Seminary Street. Star Theatre is on the right.

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