Like a 1980s ‘Hamlet,’ a play to catch a killer

By John Lyle Belden

On a quiet evening in an empty Broadway theater, a playwright sets up a very special reading of his new drama. It is exactly one year since, on opening night of his latest show, his fiancé died. It appeared to be suicide, but before this night is done, he will reveal who killed her.

This is “Rehearsal for Murder,” a clever early-80s TV movie (by Richard Levinson and William Link) adapted for the stage by D.D. Brooke and presented now by the Belfry Theatre of Hamilton County, directed by Diane Wilson.

Alex Dennison (Kelly Keller) has rented this house for the night, and explains to his young assistant, Sally (Anna E. Blower) what had happened the year before. It was an ill-fated opening night from the start. Monica Welles (Ameetha Widdershins), a B-movie actress seeking fame on the stage, had stirred controversy by missing a preview performance, and an article in that day’s Variety revealed she is secretly engaged to Alex. Still, director Lloyd Andrews (Alex Dantin) and producer Bella Lamb (Kim O’Mara) hope for the best, as Monica shares the stage with promising ingenue Karen Daniels (Olivia Carrier), popular comic Leo Gibbs (Eric Bowman) and handsome lead David Mathews (Gideon Roark).

Opening Night is a hit with the audience, but with the critics – not so much. This puts a damper on the after-party at Monica’s apartment, and as the guests leave, she also sends Alex home. But an hour or so later, she calls him at his apartment, insisting he return – then the phone goes dead. He arrives at her place to find she has apparently jumped from her upper-story window.

Concluding this convenient recap, Alex has Sally set things up, sends stagehand Ernie (Molly Kraus) home, and welcomes a mysterious man (Chris Taylor) who is to stay in the shadows to watch and ensure no one leaves. Then, the “suspects” make their way in for a play reading no one will forget.

Our cast also includes Diane Reed as a caterer; Mason Cordell Hardiman, Tanya Keller, and Richard Wilson as police; and Cindy Duncan as Ms. Santoro, who brings a truck loaded with a special stage set.

Can you guess how Alex knows it’s murder, and who the killer is?

This family-friendly whodunit is one of those shows that is both entertaining to watch and you can tell is fun for the actors to play. Portraying showbiz people, especially when suggesting they killed someone, allows for a lot of interesting scene-chewing but director Wilson and the cast don’t let it go to camp. Kelly Keller keeps a firm hold on proceedings as our host, with each of his cohorts believably portraying their Broadway archetypes. The pages from the reading play out like flashbacks, with Widdershins ghosting in to perform the script’s doomed leading lady.

Kudos to costumers Tanya Keller and Molly Kraus for finding the Barbara Mandrell-style wig for Monica, as well as Sally’s outfit, which helps solidify the ‘80s look. Best-dressed honors, however, go to Variety columnist Meg Jones, though she may be hard to spot.

I’m not good at mysteries, but if you haven’t seen this, it could have you guessing for a while, as well. Regardless, it’s fun to watch it all play out.  Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, at Ivy Tech Auditorium in Noblesville. Get tickets and info at thebelfrytheatre.com.

Hilarious new creation at Mud Creek

By John Lyle Belden

In the classic comedy style of something simple going wildly out of control, “In the Beginning…” — a new play at Mud Creek Players — God creates the Heavens and the Earth, and immediately regrets it.

At first, the Almighty (Nicole Crabtree) tries to put the Big Bang back into its bottle, or at least mop up it all up with black holes, but alas, once matter and energy exist, they can’t be destroyed. She may as well see what’s happening on the little blue thing, where a bunch of living things are crawling, swimming, flying and running around everywhere. There, she tries to customize a creature that stands upright, with less fur and a big brain — another mistake.

In this silly possibility of how everything came to be, we meet God’s top angels — Michael (Kate Carpenter), Gabriel (Eric Dixon), Lucifer (Connor Phelan), as well as the Voice of God (Craig Kemp) — and Biblical characters including Adam (Kelly Keller), Eve (Tanya Keller), Noah (Fred Margison) and Moses (Alaina Moore). 

Unless you are really devoted to a literal interpretation of Scripture, you should find all this a lot of hilarious fun. If we are made in the Lord’s image, wouldn’t it make sense that — just like when we invent and accomplish things — our Heavenly Parent is also just making it up as they go along?

Crabtree plays that unprepared Mother/Father with the right touch of exasperation and growing love for the critters she brought into being, however unintended. Dixon and Carpenter keep things lively with his urge to “smite” and her love of writing up new Commandments. Phelan’s Lucifer, naturally, is the smartest angel in the room, suave and brash, but eventually resigned to having to deal with all the extra souls that turned sour. Kemp reassures us that, as we all suspected, the commanding voice of the Almighty has a British accent. The humans all have their humanish quirks, especially Eve, who apparently overdoses on the Tree of Knowledge. And young actors Hadley Skinner and Ben Odom get a charmingly amusing moment in featured roles.

The Mud Creek Barn goes high-tech with this premiere production, with visual effects by Stephen DiCarlo that perfectly help the story along. Jay Ganz directs.Crew member Collin Moore wrote the script, and it shows a fair amount of polish for a new play.

Truly, something wonderful has been created. Performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 7-9) and Feb. 14-15 at 9740 E. 86th St. (Castleton/Geist area), Indianapolis. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.