“Mud Season Mystery: The Lodger” — The Game’s Afoot, On Zoom
[This review was written for and originally appeared, with minor changes, in Boston’s The Arts Fuse on April 19.]
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 live 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 itself and 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. 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.
The performances lean toward melodrama with a conspiratorial wink or two at the audience. The laconic suspected killer has an entertaining weakness for the occasional dry observation; the playwright is not averse to puns. 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 what has become the all too ubiquitous mind-numbing Zoom gallery view of our daily lives.
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.
Tickets are available from the Northern Stage box office. Mud Season Mystery: The Lodger run through May 2.
(Photo, top, Gracie Winchester and Jason O’Connell. Photo, center, the cast of Mud Season Mystery: The Lodger. From top left: Satomi Hofmann, Moira Stone, Gracie Winchester, Grayson DeJesus, and Jason O’Connell. Photos courtesy of Northern Stage.)
THE ARTS FUSE is an independent online arts magazine for which I occasionally write. You can find reviews of theater, books, music, and visual arts. Click here if you want to take a look.
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.