Killer play hits Scarborough stage

A group of people gathered at an island home find themselves conspiring, interrogating, investigating and acting, as they try to solve a murder.

The Ontario debut of Casting for Murder, a play by author Elizabeth Elwood, runs until tomorrow at the Scarborough Village Theatre.

It might be safe to say white wine, scotch and rum are the main characters in the play. The actors were constantly pouring liquor, whether it was to have a “pre-dinner drink,” to make a toast, or simply to have something to agree on during conversations.

The play is based on the short story To Catch an Actress. Elwood later developed a mystery series around one of her characters due to audience reception.

“When the play was first produced in Vancouver, one of the audiences just loved one of the main characters — he’s the councillor Bertram Beary,” Elwood said. “The response was so good and enthusiastic about this character.”

The play is set on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Hardwood flooring, straw chairs, turquoise walls and thin flowing white curtains depicted cottage life by the seaside. The play, which had three acts, took place entirely in a living room, with howling wind, thunder and screams coming from outside the cottage, as low lighting added to the eeriness of the end scenes.

Instead of curtains signalling scene changes, the lights dimmed and instrumental music assumed as props were moved and rearranged.

The front row was asked to keep their feet away from the stage, as the actors used “every inch” of it. Director Mike Woodbridge says it’s a “nice challenge” working with a thrust stage.

“We have to try to bring in some more movement than you normally would because of the fact that the audience is looking at the backs of peoples’ heads sometimes,” Woodbridge said. “You didn’t want to take away from the intimate setting.”

The intermissions between acts allowed the audience to play detective, as people ruled out suspects and debated over who they think is the murderer.

Elwood says people tend to trivialize murder mysteries, but they’re harder to work with than comedies because of their complexity.

“Comedies are a lot easier to write, because you’re setting things up that the audience is anticipating,” Elwood said. “[In a] mystery, you try to fool your audience. The history of the characters is so important in a mystery because so much of what happens when there’s a murder stems from all kinds of things that have gone before.”

There were some obvious set-ups, however, as characters said to each other in nonchalant tones, “Don’t walk too close to the edge — it’s a 100-metre drop.”

Actor Brad Deller says the play is actually a comedy for him.

“I was the comic relief, so my job was to try to bring in some comedic elements,” Deller said. “In terms of the story, Derek doesn’t really know anything about what’s going on.”

He says getting back into his character after breaks isn’t as difficult as it would be for a more serious role.

“I just sort of sing some drinking songs in my head and stumble around a bit backstage and I’m right there,” Deller said.

While there was humour, there was also intensity that kept people holding on to their seats.

Actor Cary West says when he read the script he thought the fight scene would scare him, but it turned out to be his favourite because it challenged him.

“It’s not just the physical interaction that you have to have with the other character,” West said. “It’s also fairly emotionally intense, and you always get scared when you do something like that, it’s going to be honest and at that level where it naturally builds.”

Like the contrast between comedy and mystery, Caitlin Stanley played two starkly different characters, Susan and Adrian, in the play and says switching between them improved with practice.

“I often find costumes extremely useful when getting into character,” Stanley said. “Especially with this situation, [as] Susan’s costumes are so prim and proper, whereas Adrian’s is messy and baggy. It’s just a task of getting into the right headspace and staying there.”

Elwood says she came up with the concept of her story when she was at a friend’s home.

“I noticed something about the floors on the high rise and it gave me an idea, and thought ‘Ha, that would be a neat little twist in a mystery story’,” Elwood said.

She says being close to the water in British Columbia inspired her to move the setting from an apartment to an island on the sunshine coast, as her husband also encouraged certain elements in the plot and setting.

“I’m married to someone who’s into his fishing, and hunting, and boating,” Elwood said. “So, much has filtered over the years [and] I actually do incorporate a great deal of that into my stories too.”

Something Elwood had in her story that wasn’t included in the play was her bottle of Dubonnet, as it’s not available in Ontario, said Woodbridge with a chuckle.