Eric Letcher is a talented actor, director, playwright, and fiction writer, but if that’s not keeping him busy enough he can start another career as an adept murder mystery writer.
Letcher has penned, directed, and acts in the latest murder mystery tour presentation running this summer on Thursday evenings at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. The Condemned features strong characters performed by a strong cast, the most sharply devised mystery of this popular series, and a smart and mostly effective tweaking of the mystery tour formula.
In past productions, audience members would be divided into groups with an assigned guide. They would be led in and out of various buildings on the Louisbourg site where they all see the assorted suspects play out scenes setting up motives and relationships and the other business of mysteries. The cast would perform the same set of scenes for however many groups were brought through. After the murder is conveniently committed right before the intermission, the audience would be reconvened as a single group to sort through the various clues and question the surviving suspects until they could say with confidence “J’accuse!”.
Letcher changes the formula in a bold and, I think, brilliant way. The audience is still divided into groups but each group sees a different set of scenes (except for a couple of necessary group gatherings) and when they reconvene after the intermission, they have to share clues from the various scenes they’ve visited in order to piece the solution to the mystery together as a group. This actually worked both as an audience participation strategy and to help the audience come to the right solution for the mystery: kind of crowd solving as they would do in the 18th Century (which is very appropriate given the venue). Letcher’s innovation, for a very successful first time out, might still need a little tweaking, which I’ll mention later.
The premise of The Condemned is ingeniously concocted: Madame DeBarolet (Lindsay Thompson)–after some judiciously applied torture by the Fortress’s official executioner, Michel Vescot (Eric W. Letcher)–has confessed to skewering her abusive husband with his own sword and has been condemned to death. The audience, who the other characters believe are there to enjoy a good hanging in the morning, gathers in the King’s Bastion Chapel where they meet all the interested parties: Adelle Madame Vescot (Jenna Lahey) who also was tortured by M. Vescot before he married her and who seems to form an inappropriately close friendship with Private LaGuerre (Rory Andrews ); Madame Doiron (Kathleen O’Toole ) an upper class lady who is friend of “The Condemned” as well as the dashing and acerbic English officer, Lt. John Emery (Mark Delaney); and the intrepid Sgt. Dominique Bellefond (Aaron Corbett) who enlists the audience to hunt through the town for Madame DeBarolet after she inexplicably escapes from her locked cell.
As a mystery writer, Letcher plays fair with the clues, even the ones that have to be conveyed second hand during the wrap up session. But along with creating a satisfying mystery (and this series, although always a fun time, has been up and down on that point), Letcher makes his script emotionally satisfying as a piece of theatre; this is no logic puzzle that once unknotted has no dramatic resonance. Every character has an arc and the solution to the mystery affects them in different ways. (I have to be vague on specifics for obvious reasons.)
Letcher makes effective use of probably the best stage set any director could wish to play on, the reconstructed Fortress. Depending on which grouping the audience members find themselves in, they visit various buildings as well as outside locations. After the murder is committed in the dying light of the sun in the middle of an eerily quiet street, Letcher stages a pursuit that concludes in a suspenseful scene on the battlements of the King’s Bastion, one of the most effective uses of the location I’ve experienced.
Again, rather than risk giving anything away for anyone intending to see the show, I will say about the cast that they all rose to the well-written script with confident, keenly played performances. Along with their fine work with the scripted scenes, they all kept easily in character (and in good humour) during the mostly ad-libbed wrap up scene in the Chapel (with special mention of Corbett’s adroitness in guiding the audience through assessing the clues). And there was good work from guides Liz Kyte and Joel Lefort playing Pierette and Fleton, respectively, who wrangled their visiting gawkers with a great deal of humour (when I joined Lt. Emery in a chorus of “Rule Britainnia”, Fleton cautioned me I could be shot for doing so although he assured me I had the voice of an angel).
My only criticism is that, effective as the change in format is, it means spending less time with the other characters (and the excellent actors playing them) who don’t intersect your group’s journey through the mystery. One set of characters received scant attention in the wrap up because their group obviously decided they were not the killers. I would have liked to have been able to meet up with all of the characters, however briefly, during the actual tour if only to enjoy the dynamic Letcher created between his characters.
The Condemned continues Thursday evenings through the rest of the summer at the Fortress of Louisbourg. When you go see it, wear comfortable shoes, bring warm clothes, and watch your back-just in case.
Tickets are on sale at the Louisbourg Playhouse (902) 733-2996, online at fortressoflouisbourg.ca or by calling 902-733-3838.