As the 2020-21 theatre season begins, no local production companies have quite opened their doors for business, but Theatre Charlotte and CPCC Theatre began inching in that direction last week.
Theatre Charlotte staged their season opener for a limited, socially-distanced audience in their parking lot out on Queens Road. The broader public and citizens of the world will be able to stream What I Did Last Summer after they bring the show indoors and record a better-lit, better-miked version on their stage.
Meanwhile, CPCC Theatre used our computer and TV monitors as their stage with A Virtual Whodunnit by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus, a lighthearted made-for-Zoom romp that deployed nine digitally-distanced actors on a layout that, decades ago, would have been identifiable only as Hollywood Squares. Very much attuned to this COVID-19 moment, the storyline of the murder mystery manages to keep the victim, seven suspects, and a retro-hat-sporting shamus homebound — or office-bound — throughout a fast-paced sequence of scenes.
Kobler and Marcus package an antagonistic meeting of the victim and our suspects, an onscreen killing, an investigation that includes interviews with all possible culprits, and — after viewers message their votes on who is guilty — the final reveal. All in about one hour, a proper chunk of time for family entertainment.
James Duke picks up the reins as director in the first CPCC Theatre show since the retirement of Tom Hollis as department chair. Duke’s imprint is also evident on the lighting, sound design, and virtual scenery of the production. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Duke’s work is his matchless cast: Not one of their names matches a search of my voluminous computer files over the past 27 years.
I’m not quite sure any of Duke’s choices is that old — Tony Cudic as Detective Rockford Sloan seems to be — or if all of them have reached legal voting age. This cradle raid proves curiously apt for a layout that is so miniaturized and claustrophobic, where the hand-to-hand violence of conventional police procedurals would be frowned upon by the CDC and the Governor’s office.
Hard-bitten realism is not the artistic aim here, though it figures as the satirical target when Detective Sloan is on the prowl. We convene at the bidding of software mogul Augustus Sterling, whose overbearing bluster and over-the-top cruelty occasionally reminds us of our Orange Incumbent. It’s really a bravura debut for Brennan Sawyer, who loudly fills his screen and seems destined to eat it. Nobody comes close to rivaling Sawyer’s scenery chewing, but we find numerous tasty clichés to savor in his circle.
The frustrated brain of the family is Sterling’s son, Bullion, a perpetually seething Daniel Keith, whom James Duke places nearly as close to his screen as his dad. Keeping poor Bullion at a near boil is the family princess, Juniper, as spoiled and pampered as her brother is oppressed and ignored. Corina Childs doesn’t quite play Her Highness’s cluelessness to the hilt, but she has a firm enough grasp on her patrician privilege. The third sib, Macy, is the anti-capitalist tree-hugging wildcard of the family, providing Dukes an opportunity to play with colorful lighting and giving costumer Ramsey Lyric a go at hippy garb.
Florina is the interloping stepmother, stymied by a prenup and resented by all her stepchildren. Jeanine Diaz plays this brazen opportunist in fine dragon-lady style — you may detect a wisp of Melania foreignness in her accent – blatantly bidding for audience votes. Can she wriggle out of her legal bind with the help of Barry Schwartz, the corporate attorney who is redrafting her husband’s will? Played close-to-the-vest by Jacob Feldpausch, Schwartz could have company secrets to leverage and his own fish to fry. He’s also the only suspect who must know the reason for his boss’s meeting.
Encountering the VP of technology, Haley Hawkins, we find that the Sterlings’ corporate intrigue goes deeper. A software developer who has been instrumental to her company’s success, the underappreciated Haley is sympathetic toward Bullion’s vision of the firm’s potential. Of course, the Haley-Bullion alliance may be more than cerebral after office hours, but Shelby Armstrong mostly plays the overlooked VP as wide-eyed and principled, without nearly the same level of resentment as her confidante.
Amid these raging and suppressed malcontents, Andrew Blackwell stands apart as Eugene Everton, the downtrodden CFO at Sterling Software and the imperious Juniper’s puppy-dog husband. I was so tempted to vote for this soft-spoken nerd as the culprit. Blackwell makes him so quietly forgotten at work and so uncomplainingly hen-pecked at home, each of his tantalizingly brief statements barely above a whisper, that I longed to see Blackwell break loose and become unhinged. Or simply move with a trace of energy.
With his wide-brimmed hat, Cudic presides over this mystery and infuses it with its noire flavor. Heaven knows why he doesn’t go all the way and pile on a Bogart lisp for the old-timers in the audience, but Cudic’s head is always turned maybe 15 degrees askance of his camera, assuring us that he isn’t corporate, hippy, dictatorial, or sexually brash. Everyone on this cheesy tic-tac-toe layout stays in his or her lane.
If you’ve never experienced the difference before, there’s a certain campy quality that comes with a Zoom theatrical — beyond the compartmentalized miniaturization — when pitted against our nostalgic memories of live, in-person productions. Every person has his or her name inscribed in the corner of their cubicle, and the frames of these cubicles will light up for each person as she or he speaks. When characters leave the scene, Duke keeps their places reserved, their names inscribed over humble icons, as if they were inert apps on your iPad.
What makes Sawyer’s cameo so treasurable for me is that he rages against his confinement and the dopey simplicity of the format. August not only fills the screen in his final moments of life, he dies into his webcam when he is killed, claiming a good chunk of his wee screen with the top of his head. On the other hand, Blackwell remains precious because he succumbs so totally to his belittling plight, sometimes scrunching up as if he isn’t sufficiently confined.
Priced at five bucks, this CPCC Theatre webcast is clearly worth it, especially if you’re spreading the suspense, the plot twists, and the laughs among multiple generations in your household. Every cellphone, computer, and tablet can have a vote on the outcome. Hopefully, you emerge after this merry hourlong escape remembering how important it is to vote in real life.