The program for Untimely Death describes the murder mystery tour as a “unique theatrical experience” and it is hard to disagree with that description.
Audience members get to come into the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site after the hundreds of visitors who daily tour the grounds have been shuttled back to their vehicles. Affable guides in period dress from the 1700’s, when the Fortress was a significant going concern for France, bring the “shabbily dressed visitors” (as one characters refers to them) through streets of the reconstructed town (“It looks like a movie set,” I overheard one impressed audience member whisper) to the lower class inn, “l’Auberge Soleil”, where the action starts with an angry bang on the door.
Louis Caubert has arrived back in Louisbourg four years after being declared dead when his ship floundered in the Caribbean. In his absence, his brother, Michel, has inherited Louis’s business interests and run them into the ground, and, to his brother’s absolute horror, has married Louis’s fiancée, Estelle.
Louis’s thriving mercantile store has been sold to pay Michel’s debts to the slightly shifty Francois Picard who has turned it into the l’Auberge Soleil. That Picard has torn out the walls of Louis’s former office has Caubert suspiciously worked up over a minor bit of renovation.
The guides lead the audience through various buildings, upper class homes, barns, inns, etc., to eavesdrop on conversations between the characters, which also include Jean Duval who has a grudge against Louis and made Michel into a debtor, Estelle who may have loved Louis but needs a man who can keep her in the style of life to which she was born, and Catherine LaPierre, an indentured servant to the Caubets who also has a past grievance against the bellicose Louis.
When the inevitable corpse shows up, Sergeant Bellefond must gather the suspects and “the shabbily dressed visitors” to sort out who is the guilty party.
I have to say Untimely Death is the strongest on every level–script, direction, performance, and presentation–of the several Louisbourg murder mysteries I have seen.
Sandy Anthony’s script plays fair with the audience: all the clues are there to solve the mystery for anyone paying attention. Each scene is pitched at the maximum dramatic tension. And the audience gets a bit of history, especially some acid comments on the class system, mixed with the mayhem. The characters seem real: all have their agendas, all seem full of faults, all seem potentially murderous or potentially killable.
Eric Letcher’s direction is vigorous and focused: scenes usually start at a high pitch and build in intensity. He has a uniformly game and talented cast and he lets them (himself included as Michel) give intense, physical performances. Although set in a huge historic site, Letcher keeps the characters intimate and physical: the characters always seem on the brink of some act of violence, even during supposedly romantic scenes.
Mark Delaney makes Louis a preening tower of privileged arrogance: a man who sees himself wronged at every turn even as he wrongs others. Letcher, as Michel, squanders any audience sympathy for his character’s invalidism by being transparently a weasel. Lindsay Thompson, as Estelle, also shows a streak of calculation that subverts her justifiable grievance of the straightened lot of 18th century women.
Stephanie Hennessey, as Catherine the servant, spends most of the play either crying or on the verge of sobbing but it works for the character: lower class women were drudges for their female employers and prey for their male overlords. Aaron Corbett, as innkeeper Picard, expertly conveyed the sleaze beneath the genial tavern host and the sheer panic of possibly losing his livelihood to the upper-class Louis. David Hutchinson gave his Ensign Duval a surface insouciance masking a hot-blooded pursuit of revenge against Louis.
Finally, Sandy MacLean as Sergeant Bellefond was, as usual, a delight as he brooked no guff from suspects and audience alike. Both the actor and the character he portrays are long veterans of the Louisbourg murder mystery and that experience showed itself in how he led the interrogation of the suspects and how he skillfully included the audience in that process. An actor needs to be quick on his feet, keep a firm hand so the audience doesn’t wander to far from the business at hand, and everybody, cast and audience, has a fun time.
The assembled suspects are also skilled improvisers and earned big laughs both for their comebacks to audience questions and their spirited insults gleefully hurled at their fellow suspects.
Special commendation must be awarded to the tour guides Rayna Burchell, Barb Kelly-Landry, Naomi Froese, and Jenna Lahey. They were uniformly chipper and strong characters in their own right and often hilariously funny with their own ad-libbed repartee.
Helping to provide an ominous ambiance, was the legendary Louisbourg fog allowing audience members to feel like they were walking back into the 18th century. Later in the summer, visitors on the mystery tour will be treated to finishing the evening with a walk back to their “carriages” under a spectacular night sky filled with stars.
Untimely Death runs every Thursday evening (except for July 25) until August 29 at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. Tickets must be booked in advance by calling 902-733-3548 or online at fortressoflouisbourg.ca Visitors are advised to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes and bring a sweater or jacket because the Louisbourg weather is famously changeable.