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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 6, 2008
Going Out for murder and mayhem
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND What has a convoluted plot, elements of romantic comedy, and the suspense of a thriller with a healthy dose of wackiness thrown in?
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, John Bishop’s little-known play, which had a short run on Broadway in 1987 and is coming to the Guilderland High School stage this weekend.
“Bishop had a remarkable insight into the dark side of human nature, which he saw in both a comic and satiric way,” said Marshall W. Mason in a memoriam for Bishop after he died in 2006. Mason was the founding artistic director of the Circle Repertory Company, an off-Broadway company for which Bishop was a major writer.
“I selected the play not in a very organic way,” said Andy Maycock, a Guilderland High School English teacher who has selected and directed the school’s fall plays for the last half-dozen years. “I went to a publisher's website and typed in ‘large cast, a comedy or a thriller.’ Talk about a high-tech way to find a play.”
The play is an ensemble piece with five men and five women, just right for Maycock’s casting. Although he had never heard of the play before, Maycock liked what he read.
“It’s kind of corny,” he said. “More comedy than thriller. It’s fun it’s got sliding bookcases and secret passages. Set in the 1940s, it’s got a Nazi spy subplot.”
The play takes place in the library of a Long Island mansion. Jim VanHorne, a Guilderland technology teacher, has overseen the set construction. “He brings all kinds of neat kids in to work on it,” said Maycock; many of them are VanHorne’s students.
“Right now, we have bookshelves, but no books,” said Maycock on Monday, four days before opening night. To fill the shelves, he said, “We’re going to ask people to bring in what they can.”
The mansion is owned by Elsa Von Grossenknueten; Maycock laughs just to say her name. Elsa has backed many musicals and is determined to find out about the recent murder of three chorus girls, one of them her friend, Bebe McAllister.
Elsa invites to her mansion would-be backers for a new musical with the intention of finding out who among them is the murderer.
“So there’s a house full of 10 people and they’re snowed in. They can’t get out. They’re trapped in the house,” said Maycock. “It’s not like Agatha Christie, where they start to disappear one by one....”
The audience is given false clues as it tries to guess who the murderer is. English teacher Olivia Mars came up with “neat costume ideas,” said Maycock “that make the audience think it’s someone it’s not.”
“I was dismayed last year to lose so many seniors,” said Maycock. Only two veteran players are on the stage this year senior Ariella Sega and junior Gabby Formica.
Sega plays Elsa Von Grossenknueten, who is hosting the backers’ audition, where directors and actors are to read from a new musical to attract investors.
“It’s a game for her,” Maycock said of Elsa, who is really looking for the murderer.
“Last year,” he said of Sega in Noises Off, “she played an insecure British stage manger. This year, she’s a loony Long Island type. She’s good at accents. She’s a lot of fun, full of energy. She never seems to have a down day.”
Formica plays Marjorie Baverstock, a wealthy woman. “Marjorie’s already on board,” said Maycock.
The rest of the cast he described as “a whole slew of great new people” ranging from freshmen to seniors making their stage debut.
Two of the players gave up fall sports to be on stage, said Maycock.
One of them is Drew Pontillo. “He was a varsity football player last year,” said Maycock. “He was in my acting class and did a show at Park Playhouse over the summer. The acting bug has gotten him...The first day of school, he said to me, ‘Mr. Maycock, I’m not going out for football because I want to try out for the play.’”
He got the part of Eddie McCuen, an out-of-work comedian.
“He is the punch line to all the jokes that happen on stage,” said Maycock. “As a stand-up comedian, he adds commentary.”
Maycock described Pontillo as ”really disciplined,“ adding, “I’m sure the athletics helped with that.”
He went on, “By the third rehearsal, he had all his lines down.”
The character Pontillo plays, which some have likened to Bob Hope, has an immediate attraction to Nikki Crandall.
“Nikki is a cast member wannabe, a show girl,” said Maycock. “She and Eddie kind of hit it off, and kind of don’t. Eddy likes her. That part’s like a romantic comedy.”
Nikki is played by Amelia Lochner, another senior who gave up fall sports to be in the play. She had been in the Guilderland Players’ spring musicals before, said Maycock, but, until this year, had played soccer in the fall.
While Maycock wouldn’t reveal the murderer, he did, when pressed, reveal the ending to the romantic comedy.
“Eddie and Nikki do get together at the very last moment of the play.”
Maycock called the production “a technical journey.” The biggest technical difficulty, he said, was “moving 10 people around in a conversation” on stage, a feat he said was far harder than choreographing 30 dancers on stage for a musical.
The plot is so convoluted, Maycock said, that the actors were well into rehearsals before they grasped all the nuances. “For the first three weeks, we’d get to a line in Act II and then understand the set-up in Act I,” he said.
“We hope people come both nights so, once they know the identity of the killer, “said Maycock, “they’ll be able to understand everything leading up to it.”
He concluded of the play, “The audience will find it refreshing. It’s an interesting story, with interesting characters; the pacing is good.”
Using his 9-year-old daughter as a barometer, Maycock said, “She’d be worried at some parts, but not scared...It’s absolutely something a family can go to,” he said of the play. “A couple of moments, the lights go out a character has been killed on stage. You might think of that as disturbing, but nobody on stage has noticed.
“When the killer...is found, it’s funny; it’s slapstick. There’s no blood, no harsh language...Anybody would enjoy it.”
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 plays at Guilderland High School in Guilderland Center on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 7 and 8, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door.