A Midsummer's Night Scream, written and directed by Paul Vander Roest for Act Out Mystery Theatre, begins with a script, a cast, and a hungry audience. It continues with a murder mystery and some outlandish attempts to solve it. Red herrings aren't on the dinner menu but they sure complicate the sleuthing. It ends with the solution-by-committee of a murder as well as an uncommon sense of community with your tablemates. If theatre -- and a meal -- can't bring people together, then nothing can.
The script is witty. It brims with a seamless mix of unlikely cultural references. Downton Abbey, Harry Potter, the Swinging '60s, Shakespeare. It features names that are just plain funny. Chef Boyd Hardy. Polly Esther. Marsha Mellow. Lady MacDeath. Holly Wood. And Mona Desmond. Somehow it advances a straightforward plot: the solving of a murder that begins before the salad and is resolved after the desert. You laugh so much that you forget that, oh yeah, someone just died.
Sarah Bellum (Taylor Magee) is married to Art Major (Vander Roest). They are stage actors who crave the money and the prestige of film stardom. Their manager/agent, the bibulous Mona Desmond (Holly Baker-Kreisworth), arranges a schmoozefest at their summer retreat. And then -- the horror! -- Mona dies. Some scoundrel slips poison into her brandy. Suspects abound. Is it the butler, Peter Squints (Bill Wolski)? Mona's sister and 60s groover, Marsha Mellow (Lorrie Freilich)? What about Meryl Strip, George Looney, or even the hosts, Sarah and Art? Some keen deduction on the part of the audience, some equally keen servings of mushroom ravioli, salmon with mango salsa, and prime rib slathered with horseradish and, before you can say "I'll have cheesecake, please," the case is solved.
The performances are over the top and fluid. Over the top to make sure you don't miss the clues tossed into your lap like picnic Frisbees. Fluid in the sense that they improvise and riff off of what each night's audience adds to the mix. God bless the audience's histrionic souls. Especially the gentleman who not only won the best audience performance award but whose character perpetrated the ghastly deed.
As both Peter Squints the Butler and Snitch the Witch, Wolski is uproariously snide. Baker-Kreisworth's Mona is hilariously and despicably un-endearing. Not that she had to die, but, still, if someone had to go. Magee and Vander Roest were preternaturally hammy -- think of a cross between Absolutely Fabulous and Dallas -- which makes them perfect for the stage and questionable for the cinema.
The production serves an interesting function that amazes this writer. Up close as we are, we marvel at how the actors on stage -- or in front of your table -- can un-self-consciously inhabit a role. We watch them play someone else and they don't seem to know we exist. That they make it look easy is a tribute to the skill involved. Just ask anyone of the otherwise heroic audience-actors. My chum, for instance.
The production's last performance is 7 p.m., Saturday, May 31. Tickets are $54.95, show and meal inclusive. The Reef Restaurant is located at 880 S Harbor Scenic Drive, Long Beach, CA 90802. For more information call (562) 961-9862 or visit www.actoutmystery.com.