BY KEN CHISHOLM
Judging by the dress rehearsal for The Petticoat Duel, audiences for the latest murder mystery at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site will have a grand time ferreting out the guilty along with enjoying some sharp comedy and even sharper swordplay.
The playwright, Eric Letcher, has written several previous murder mysteries for the Fortress, and that experience and familiarity with the reconstructed site, along with his studies as an historian, pays off in a tight, intense script with plenty of dramatic scenes and a mystery that, after discarding a boatload of clever red herrings, is solvable. And what is even better, solving the mystery depends on the close observation of the psychology of the characters as much to the mechanics of the murder.
Letcher draws on his historical expertise for the premise: the little known historical fact that women sometimes fought in duels of honour. In his fictional tale, Josephine Giscard, visiting Louisbourg with her brother Sebastian and servant girl Elodie, has demanded satisfaction (and a very large cash settlement) from Genevieve Treville for the outrage she claims M. Treville committed on her person. Although duelling is technically illegal, the dispute being between nobility, the authorities have turned a blind eye to the affair leaving Sargent of the Watch Bellefond, Surgeon Dufrot, and hapless local Hercule Bouillabasse to manage the situation as best as they can. When one of the cast is dispatched, the audience is assembled in the Chapel at the King’s Bastion to interrogate the surviving suspects.
Last year’s mystery, The Condemned, saw a refinement in the format. Instead of the various groups of audience seeing replays of scenes take place in the various locales, indoors and outdoors, at the Fortress, each group saw a separate set of scenes and they had to combine their observations to detect the evil doer.
This year, there were three groups and three sets of scenes that had to be brought together before the denouement. Even though the dress rehearsal audience numbered only about a dozen, they (“we” I should say) jumped right in and quickly developed theories and counter theories; they even paid close attention to the nuances of the performances to help sort out the guilty from the innocent.
It helps that these shows have the production values any feature filmmaker would pawn his Golden Globe for: hand tailored period costumes, authentically reconstructed period buildings stocked with the furniture and knick-knacks of the era, and a gloriously summer sunset over the waters of Louisbourg harbour illuminating much of the action of the play. Not to mention barn swallows and a federally funded goat or sheep improving the occasional guest appearance.
That said, the human cast, under the stalwart direction of Mark Delaney, is top notch. Kathleen O’Toole as Josephine and Amber Tapley as Genevieve both gave strong passionate performances with equal measures of vulnerability and aristocratic hauteur: they were also extraordinarily confident swordswomen. Daniel Dobson as the vaguely oily Sebastian and Andrew Guthro as the blustery but dubious Edouard also both inhabited their upper class characters with suitable arrogance and wit. Phonse Walsh as Surgeon Dufort was compelling as a strong man in a weak social position and Veronique Hotton as Elodie stood out with a part that could have easily faded into the wallpaper. Director Delaney as Sargeant Bellefond and writer Letcher as Hercule were a comic delight as a good cop/dumb cop pairing.
The Petticoat Duel, will run every Thursday evening beginning July 7 to September 1 at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. Tickets are $30 per person and are available online or by phone through the Fortress of Louisbourg Association at 902-733-3548. Ticket holders are advised to rendezvous at entrance 2. Doors open at 6:30 pm; show starts at 7 pm. This is a “rain or shine” event (with no refunds or exchanges) so wear comfortable, dry footwear and warm clothes.