The phrase “the butler did it” is without question the most cliché phrase of the murder mystery genre. In fact, mystery novelist and critic S.S. Van Dine in his essay “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” fervently warns writers that “a servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit.” Likely because this too would be excessively cliché and easily solved by the audience. Allen’s Community Theatre’s presentation of The Butler Did It, written by Tim Kelly, is far from cliché, by satirizing murder mystery theater with heavy doses of farcical humor.
The hilarity begins when the Grande dame Miss Maple (played by Nancy Cecco), invites a merry band of murder mystery authors to one of her well-known weekend parties. The amusingly wild dinner party guests, acting as aliases from their own writings, stumble through the evidence, as well as their own comical character flaws, to solve the murder. When suddenly, to the audience's expected delight, one of the esteemed guests is murdered, setting off the string of egotistical sleuths to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, more characters succumb to the supposed villain, as they fall over each other and the clues, symbolized by falling figurines from the mantle.
Beyond Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (here Miss Maple), playwright Tim Kelly, parodies many of the America’s most beloved detective characters. Charlie Chan, known as Louie Fan (played by Doug Smetzer), always has a farfetched hunch for the culprit. Smetzer effectively sells the part as an Anglo writer utilizing a “Chinaman” character alias, delivering foolhardy one-liners and dumbfounded expressions.
In addition, Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man” are cast here as Rick and Laura Carlyle (played by Ted Strahan and Laura Jennings) appear with their plush pooch Napoleon. Moreover, one cannot pose a mystery without the infamous Sherlock Holmes, here appropriately named Peter Flimsey (played by Chuck Barlow). He appears with his signature frock coat and magnifying glass, which mockingly magnifies the obvious twenty-times the naked eye. Nonetheless, the most intriguing of props is the mysterious black hat-box carried by Rita, the hired social secretary (played by Kerra Simms), who slyly sneaks up on unsuspecting guests causing continual dramatic irony.
All the drama unfolds in the living room at Ravenswood Manor, an isolated estate on the aptly named Turkey Island. The delightfully campy set unveils hidden secrets in its assorted nooks and crannies, while the strong cast distributes memorable one-liners and slapstick calamities. The absurdly kooky housemaid, Haversham (played by Maxine Frauenheim), a convicted criminal, is performing her indentured servitude at Ravenswood Manor as part of a work release program, though she appears much too flaky and aloof to commit any unpleasant actions. Frauenheim keeps the comedy rolling as she dishes outrageous hints to the reality of the sleuth's dire situation. Additionally, true to the mystery genre, the not so pious Father White (played by Audie Preston), struggles to control his primordial yearnings as he frets over how to escape back to the San Francisco coast.
This well written spoof allows every character a moment of hilarious praise. Chandler Marlowe (played by Russell Sims) attempts to portray rationality, but literally trips over clues instead of deducing them. While Charity Haze (played by Kathleen Vaught) provides a fashionably late, yet grandiose entrance to the party via helicopter, assuredly winning the over the audience from the beginning with her performance.
The standout signature of this ACT presentation is the collection of strikingly strong performances from a large cast of characters. From the minute the cast arrives at the party, they immerse the audience in their world of farcical charades. In the end, the climax spoofs both the erratic dinner party of mystery writers and the unsuspecting audience. Directed by Joe Barr and Gena Graham, The Butler Did It delivers a comedic parody of most all the mystery writings one can remember, wrapped into two acts with four fast paced scenes. Audiences are sure to revel as they decipher if the butler really did anything except provide a night of laughs to die for.