By Susan B. Apel
Director Jess Chayes has done all that is humanly possible to stage a lively live production under Zoom constraints.
Mud Season Mystery: The Lodger by Brenda Withers. Directed by Jess Chayes. A Northern Stage production that will be performed live on Zoom through May 2. Check theater site for times.
Mud Season Mystery: The Lodger is Northern Stage’s final production of a tumultuous pandemic theater season. During this challenging year, the company has pivoted heroically in order to bring theater to its audiences. Performances were cancelled in the spring of 2020, but the following fall Northern Stage became one of three theaters in the United States approved by Actors’ Equity to present an indoor, socially-distanced production. Tiny Necessary Theater was then launched; it was dedicated to prerecorded, stream-able dramas. Northern Stage’s holiday production was a radio version of It’s a Wonderful Life, which was offered as a free broadcast in conjunction with Vermont Public Radio. The troupe has replaced its usual upcoming fall schedule with two plays that will run during the summer, for which Northern Stage is currently constructing an outdoor theater.
Brenda Withers’s Mud Season Mystery: The Lodger is a twofer: viewers experience the production via a novel delivery strategy — a live performance via Zoom that invites interaction between audiences and performers.
The plot offers up familiar mystery genre tropes. A serial killer is on the prowl in 1925 London. Mrs. B (Satomi Hofmann), an unmarried and financially challenged woman of a certain age, opens her home to a well-heeled stranger. Her niece, Daisy (Gracie Winchester), is already bunking with her aunt; she works as a low-salaried actress. Mrs. B frets about Daisy walking through the dark streets when she returns from the theater each night. Daisy, with the naivete of youth, shrugs off her aunt’s concerns and pragmatically points out that bills need to be paid.
From the shadows emerges a lodger, the homonymic Mr. Sleigh (Jason O’Connell). He’s no charmer by a long shot. He’s secretive, claiming to be a scientist — but he can’t explain his work. Still, money talks and he chooses a remote room up in the attic. Of course, viewers immediately suspect that he is the murderer: he is swathed in black, covers his face, and speaks with a chilly Hitchcockian voice. The cast is rounded out by Joe (Grayson DeJesus), a detective, hot on the killer’s trail, who volunteers to squire Daisy home each evening.
Withers doesn’t expect us to take all this guff seriously, so the performances lean toward melodrama with a conspiratorial wink or two. The laconic suspected killer has an entertaining weakness for puns as well as for the occasionally dry observation. The plot unfolds, the murders continue, and Joe investigates. All signs point toward the mysterious Mr. Sleigh. As with all mysteries that are worth their salt, there’s a plot twist, and it is probably one that will surprise most viewers.
Staging the script via hybrid live performance on Zoom is the evening’s final character. A narrator is supplied: Ronnie (Moira Stone), a comedic, at times philosophical, Rod Serling sort of figure who punctuates the proceedings from time to time with reflections that aim to be helpful to those trying to solve the mystery. She provides some historical context, as when she talks about the limited options for an unmarried woman in 1925. She stirs viewers’ imagination by asking such questions as “what could this blood mean?” More aggressively, she reaches through the screen, un-muting and then calling on viewers by name (no worries, there is a pre-show opportunity to volunteer, or not). Those who are game to join the game afoot are asked to provide on-screen commentary. At another point, Joe interviews a viewer or two, asking if they witnessed one of the murders. Some of these attempts to pull viewers into the show come off as a trifle gimmicky. Still, they add variety; they, along with Ronnie’s unannounced appearances, keep the pace moving. Drawing viewers in supplies welcome relief from the at this point mind-numbing Zoom gallery view.
Director Jess Chayes has done all that is humanly possible to stage a lively live production under Zoom constraints. All five actors perform in-person each night, alone on their own individual screens. The “set” consists of an identical patch of vintage wallpaper projected behind each actor. There’s a burst of red curtain for one of Daisy’s performances on stage. Most amusingly, a synchronized dance number features the four major characters hoofing it up. Props pass magically from one Zoom rectangle to the next. Unlike staged performances that are filmed and then presented online, this is live theater, where, as Ronnie reminds us in the opening, “anything can happen.” And so it does.
Susan B. Apel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in various online and print publications such as the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Literary Mama, and Persimmon Tree. Her blog, Artful, in which she writes about the arts in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, appears regularly at http://artful.substack.com She is an art correspondent for The Woven Tale Press and a former legal columnist for the newspaper Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.