Getting a Clue

"Get yourself some puppets, put 'em on ice skates, and you'll be a millionaire," laments one character in the Avenue Theater's interactive murder mystery Murder Most Fowl, a nine-year-old production that annually lampoons local celebrities and events. At a recent performance of the show, that line drew gentle laughter and murmured comments from play-goers--a reaction that's the goal of many improvisational comedy groups. Unfortunately, it's also the sort of response that can become a death rattle for actors who push the envelope of social commentary too far, bringing to mind American playwright George S. Kaufman's supposed quip, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."
But under the direction of John Ashton, the current installment of MMF doesn't stretch the satire too much. Though clearly inspired by the vintage antics of John Belushi and company (what modern-day comedy troupe isn't?), Ashton and his seasoned cast weave their improvisational one-liners into a loosely structured murder mystery. They even encourage an informal party atmosphere to flourish in the theater. Ashton flirts with the audience before the show and at intermission, though sometimes his friendly banter bears an unintended resemblance to the stereotypical chatter of a twelve-step meeting: "My name's John. Welcome. How did you hear about us?" is his hospitable refrain.

Once the pre-show warmup ends, the lights come up on the backstage area of the mythical Consortium Theater, which is a hotbed of innuendo: We watch Hammond Deggs (Trace Oakley), an itinerant actor, share bits of behind-the-scenes gossip with Max Nugget (Dale Stewart), a flamboyantly gay stage manager. Meanwhile, Dexter Coop (Bill Berry), an oft-drunken theatrical producer, and Holly Pharme (Deborah Persoff), a promiscuous leading lady, punctuate their sleazy interludes with cutting remarks about a handful of Denver personalities.

We quickly learn that the Consortium's leading man, Robert Poulet (an offstage voice supplied by Alan Dumas), is more trouble than his famous name is worth at the box office. After the insufferable ham is murdered by an unknown assailant (fulfilling the secret fantasies of theater practitioners everywhere), Lieutenant Sanders (Ashton), a Columbo-like cop, enters the theater and questions each member of the theatrical troupe. As he gradually becomes convinced that his best help in solving the crime resides on the other side of the footlights, Ashton stops his interrogation of the onstage characters and asks the audience members for their advice. He tells us that after a concession-filled intermission, we will be encouraged to question the actors about any incriminating behavior.

When Act Two begins, theater-goers challenge the characters to provide alibis and explanations for their conduct during the first half of the play. The actors handle themselves remarkably well, providing plausible explanations while simultaneously delivering a few wisecracks in the direction of the local constabulary. The audience members join in, routinely greeting each of Lieutenant Sanders's bungling escapades with a one-word epithet of their own: "Boulder!"

Given the enormous popularity of cop humor among the spectators, it's surprising that the performers--many of whom helped write the script--don't take full advantage of the comic windfall made possible by the day-to-day activities of some of Colorado's finest. Then again, restraint on the part of the actors may be doubly intentional: Viewers should have the opportunity to offer some humor of their own in an event billed as "audience-participation theater."

Even so, the audience spends much of the evening trying to guess which real-life people and events will be the targets of the performers' verbal zingers. Considering that the pool of celebrities eligible for comic deflation is filled to capacity this year, you'd think that the actors would have little difficulty in choosing a select few. But their choices often prove to be puzzling. One actor tells us what a local police chief has been doing with his thumbs while an infamous crime remains unsolved, but that's the last we hear of the top cop. Instead, Persoff skewers a local car dealer whose first name is "Big," and Ashton describes a television personality's facial features as being like "all three Marx brothers rolled into one."

All of which makes the murder-mystery aspect of the show more interesting than its comic segments. Nevertheless, most in the audience seem to enjoy the escapades of the affable quintet, led by Berry's delightful drunk and Stewart's catty queen. And to the actors' credit, they treat their audience with respect, never stooping to the level of some improv groups that strive to embarrass and ridicule their patrons.

This show may not be great satire, but it isn't "Puppets on Ice," either. Somewhere in between those two entertainment forms, Ashton and his crew have fashioned an enjoyable evening of comedy with a distinctive, crowd-pleasing style all its own. And for the admission price of $15, what they offer is enough of a bargain to get you hoping for something even better next year.

Murder Most Fowl, in an open-ended run at the Avenue Theater, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 321-5925.


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