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February 6, 2007 > Murder at Rutherford House

Murder at Rutherford House

By Steve Warga

When director, Anne Kelly, decided to tackle a staple of dinner theatre playhouses all over the world, she faced some daunting challenges. First among them was the fact her talent pool featured no one over the age of 18. Not only did this mean plenty of patient coaching of juveniles to effectively project the mannerisms of those strange creatures called grown-ups, it also meant redacting some racier portions of the script.

"I had to go through and 'PG-13' some of the sexual innuendos," she laughs. "We sat down with the players in our very first reading and went through each line to be sure they all were comfortable with our script. I explained that even though they may talk like this in the school yard, away from adults, we had to remember there would be adults in the audience. I think it worked out really well."

She's right! This ground-breaking production, an audience participation, live version of the board game "Clue," has been a big hit with sold-out performances through its first weekend run, February 2 - 4. Don't dally in getting tickets; there are only a few remaining for the final showings, this Friday and Saturday, February 9 - 10.

Based on a script published in 1990 by playwrights Tom Chiodo and Peter DePietro, Murder at Rutherford House depicts the fifth - and final - gathering of the highly dysfunctional cast of survivors of one Lord Rutherford, on the anniversary of his death. In the grand tradition of English House of Tudor murder mysteries (think Agatha Christie), this zany group of characters commence attacking each other with long-simmering resentments, jealousies, greed and lust.

They also commence firing shots from various weapons into various bodies that do not survive; and that's when the fun begins! Each audience member is assigned a nametag and receives an envelope with certain enclosures, including a few twenty-dollar bills (no, they're not real!) to hand out for information from various cast members circulating among the tables throughout the evening. There's little in the way of resistance to such open bribery. One thing's for sure with this cast, they're all eager to snatch every buck they can from any source as they all wait for the reading of wealthy Lord Rutherford's will. Well, those who survive wait for the reading, everyone tries to figure out "whodunit."

The assigned names are all tongue-in-cheek clever and part of the fun. This reviewer enjoyed the company of, among others, Miss Anne Chovey and her mother, Ms. Lily Pad. Neither managed to solve the mystery and win the Silver Sleuth trophy, but not for lack of trying. Young Miss Chovey was the picture of youthful concentration throughout the performance. Our table also included the alluring Ms. Maggie Zine, editor of a fiercely feminist publication. She spent the evening busily scribbling notes while wrestling with the cleverly scrambled limerick that might help solve the mystery. Turns out she was a bit of a mystery herself!

The youthful players prove most entertaining in this production. Of special note, Rebecca Castro Olmos as Lady Millicent Rutherford and Rachael Funk as Baroness Greta von Keepsumfromfloppen ("that's flow-pen, not flop-pen!") impressed with their abilities to project women much older than their true, under-18 ages. Other than the youthfully smooth complexions they couldn't disguise, both were the very picture of "experienced" women somewhat anxiously seeking further "experiences."

Steven Vogel, as the cynical, sardonic older brother, Lord Oswald Rutherford, can't possibly be a sophomore in high school. Can he? And where did he learn to convincingly portray a grown man pretending to be blind (since Vogel himself sees just fine, this performance would make him a double-agent in spy parlance)? Then there is his sister, Hermione Rutherford, who shoots invisible pigeons indoors; chases invisible butterflies; and delightfully coaxes a silent, compassionate urge from the audience to have her committed "to the funny farm where life is beautiful all the time," as the crazy song goes. Jennifer San Filippo is so good in her role you're relieved to learn she's a perfectly normal and most engaging 14-year old off-stage.

Special merit goes to one, Brandon Bonilla, who describes himself as "a really cool 7th grader!" Funny thing is, he's also a really cool middle-aged, vertically-impaired, financially-ruined suitor of the statuesque Lady Rutherford. Brandon is a natural. In turns, his character is the seasoned, calm in the storm, man of means; then a man saddened and embarrassed by financial failure; then an offended, jilted lover; and most appealingly, a man so insulted and indignant that he stands on a chair to sufficiently emphasize his anger toward the amorous Lady Rutherford! Watching Brandon playing the superior male with the much-taller Rebecca is worth the price of admission. He's most entertaining.

Catch the fun before it's gone. Bring your six bucks for a ticket and enjoy a fine, community theatre effort, along with desert treats, sparkling apple cider for a toast and your very own packet of genuine Rutherford House Tea, the source of all that delicious inheritance money the survivors are simply dying to have for themselves! Bring your "thinking cap" too, you'll sure need it.

Murder at Rutherford House
Friday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 10, 2:30 p.m.
Milpitas Community Center
457 E. Calaveras Blvd. (behind City Hall)
Tickets: $6
Order-by-phone is available at (408) 586-3210

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