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Guilt by Chicken

Encore! Dinner Theatre opens its doors with deadly whodunit



I love a play that has something to teach its audience. Don't get me wrong; Murder Most Fowl has precious little in it that's "good for you." There are no morals to absorb, no significant social commentary, and despite some rough handling of its title character, there is not even any controversial mistreatment of animals to stir the conscience. The play is extremely revealing, however, turning the tables on its audience in this interactive whodunit.

The play takes place backstage during the Consortium Theater's production of Shakespeare's Scottish play. The opening scene gives us at least four characters with motives to kill the company's leading man, Robert Poulet. We can tell they have motives by musical cues played over the sound system, bookmarking suspicious statements. Leading actress Holly Pharme -- who lost her virginity somewhere on the props table -- is tired of having her lines cut by Poulet; producer Dexter Coop stands to benefit financially from Poulet's demise, thanks in part to his creative approach to bookkeeping; bisexual stage manager Max Nugget -- he's had sex twice -- bears an old grudge from his brief stint as an actor; and understudy Hammond Deggs sees Poulet as a roadblock on the road to his own stardom.

Although there are no witnesses to the offstage murder, Lt. Sanders, a police detective in the audience, breaks through the fourth wall of the theater, enlisting the audience's testimony as witnesses to the backstage events preceding the murder. After an act of lowbrow comedy, slapstick humor, topical jokes and references, the second act is primarily improvisational as the cast responds to accusations and interrogations from the audience. Even the outcome is unknown as each character attempts to manipulate the audience's suspicions.

Director Pamela Clifton's cast was still a little rough around the edges on opening weekend, taking refuge in the play's improvisational elements when they struggled with Denver playwright John Ashton's script, and finding shelter in the interactive elements when the improvisation was too challenging. Understudy Jennifer Morris actually seemed the most comfortable stepping into the role of Holly Pharme, and if she wasn't always quick to fire off ad-lib answers to audience queries, she was patient and persistent, fighting her way out of alibi-block with all the creative truth distortion of John Lovitz's Liar or George Castanza on a roll. It's easy to imagine the cast competing to win the undetermined guilty verdict each night, and based on her response to questions under the harsh white spot light, Morris had a cakewalk down to death row.

The rest of the cast has no difficulty keeping up the comic hijinx, with Ricardo Barrera showing the best instincts as Nugget, and Dan Mundell having fun with the Texan caricature Coop. Tupper Cullum's easygoing Lt. Sanders was bucking for a promotion to Colonel, but is a bit rusty in utilizing his skills in the non-scripted sections of the play. Derek Greene's Deggs appeared uneasy on the stage, breaking down a bit under the lights and struggling to maintain his comic rhythm in front of a live audience.

Greene and Cullum in particular had trouble keeping straight faces throughout the evening, but that's the kind of humor-once-removed that seems to appeal to the interactive audience, and that's where the learning curve steepens its slope.

Although Murder Most Fowl is a lot of fun, it's not exactly what a discerning theatergoer may think of as a top-drawer comedy. But the audience proves the point that Encore! Dinner Theatre is banking on -- that there is a healthy segment of the population who wants nothing more out of a theater experience than the chance to hoot and holler at the cast, to lose their own inhibitions after an evening of imbibing and to seize a few minutes of fame as they affect the course of the evening's traffic on the stage. If nothing else, Murder Most Fowl delivers on those goods with a cast that shows considerable promise of improving as they settle in during the show's extended run.

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