A hair-splitting scream. A dead body covered in blood. A murder mystery.
That's the scenario you might face during a night out at the theater in Charleston. When it comes to "Whodunits," Charleston has a couple of opportunities to play detective and solve the case.
There are two murder mystery theaters here in Charleston: The Black Fedora Comedy Mystery Theatre downtown and the newer Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner Show in North Charleston.
There are also some traveling ones, like Murder Mystery Productions' "Final Vows," a weekend-long experience at Middleton Place.
As for the improv-based mainstays, Black Fedora has been located at the corner of the French Quarter Inn by the Historic City Market for six years now. Owners Darryl and Sherry Wade serve as writers, directors, actors, managers, bookkeepers, marketing agents and more to keep the business running. The duo of English majors has created a series of shows that have thrived in downtown Charleston's nightlife scene.
There's the classic "Clue"-based murder mystery, where suspects must be eliminated and a weapon and motive identified. There's also a Star Trek-themed scenario, a holiday heist, a Sherlock Holmes story and a Southern-style garden club conundrum. Shows are $15 for kids and $24 for adults, and drinks and desserts are available for purchase on-site.
It's up to the audience to piece together the series of events, participate in the action and discover the culprit.
North Charleston's Dinner Detective show is similar, but with a twist. The actors are hidden in the audience (no costumes) except for a host and two "lead detectives" who work with everyone to piece together the case.
It's "Saturday Night Live" meets "Clue," and hilarity ensues. Laminated pieces of evidence are distributed along with a four-course meal.
Franchise owner Whitney Axley started out as an actor in the Los Angeles version in 2005 and has since opened six different branches herself, including the newest North Charleston operation, for which dinner-and-a-show tickets are $59.99. There's also a cash bar.
Every show is different, and there's always an element of surprise, Axley said. The actors are experts in improv and good at blending in.
To experience Black Fedora and Dinner Detective, our Scene team donned magnifying glasses, grabbed notepads and hopped on the case.
It all goes back to Nancy Drew
"Nancy, every place you go, it seems as if mysteries just pile up one after another."
I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I've always loved Nancy Drew, ever since reading the bright yellow hardback books and playing the computer games when I was in grade school.
I used to write mysteries featuring my friends as spies on the search for a missing gemstone or the secrets of a haunted island. I thought one day I was going to be a detective.
Turns out, my observation skills were not quite on the level of Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Inc. squad. But scribbling those 100-page mystery "novels" caused me to discover another talent hidden beneath the magnifying glass: writing.
Just because I'm not a CIA agent doesn't mean I can't enjoy a good mystery now and then.
I've been wanting to go to a mystery theater for a while, and I got my chance to play my childhood hero, Nancy Drew, with partner in crime and Scene contributor, Liz Foster.
Cue the "Pink Panther" theme song.
There's no saying "no" at a murder mystery comedy show. I know because I had the honor of being chosen to participate in the action — at both productions.
At Black Fedora, I was a "Fluff Duster" and got to dance with a literal duster alongside the French maid (who turned out to be a prime suspect of the evening). And at Dinner Detective, I was deemed a suspect and made to walk a straight line, walk like a runway model and then run like a hungry panda chasing food.
It got a little ridiculous, but I played my part in the evening's laughter.
At Black Fedora, the fun started with a wall full of detective portraits. The audience was tasked with identifying each of them for a prize. Of course my queen, Nancy, was up there. So were her buddies, Joe and Frank Hardy. I was already sold.
Almost all of the audience members were handed short scripts with cues for when to stand up and read them. Characters emerged in those scripts, like a belly dancer, a really sad girl and a "man of the evening," and it was up to the attendees to act the part.
At the Dinner Detective, there was more investigation than participation. We asked questions, worked together to combine clues and, ultimately, make the big guess: Whodunit?
Everyone had a name tag, including the killer, so we all suspected each other. Immediately, Liz and I were wary of "Sunshine": too cheery, too witty. Turns out, two of our other table mates were really who we should've been looking out for (that was a big surprise later in the night)!
When it came down to mystery-solving, you better believe I was channeling Nancy. Her spirit was with me. I identified the main culprit both times, minus a few details. Knowing I had cracked the case, after devouring Black Fedora's chocolate lava cake and Dinner Detective's delicious grilled chicken dinner (Liz had the salmon), was just the cherry on top — nay, the feather in one's cap — of the evening.
The experience was about more than just putting the facts together. It was about getting out of your comfort zone, letting loose and adding a few years onto your life (unlike that poor murder victim) from laughter.
"I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."
While I, too, enjoyed my fair share of Nancy Drew books, I was intrigued by more than the plaid-wool-pencil-skirt-and-sweater set. My brain is a little darker than that.
"Silence of the Lambs" was my introduction to murder mysteries and uncovering the truth behind psychopathic behavior. I even made it my college major.
More than 20 years later, I am obsessed with "Criminal Minds" and my television is constantly tuned to the Investigation Discovery channel. Watching "Swamp Murders" is how I get to sleep at night.
It makes the lambs stop screaming. But let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?
The key to making an improv-based murder mystery experience fun is to truly embrace the silly and leave your ego at the door. The worst way to approach the night is to take yourself, or anyone else, too seriously.
Upon taking our seats at Black Fedora, I immediately jumped into matching the correct gumshoe photo with its assigned number: “I know that’s the NYPD Blue-guy, but what’s his name again?” There were about 35 options and I didn’t want to run out of time and miss the opportunity to win something. This was me taking myself too seriously, which I soon realized when I saw the picture of Mulder and Scully in the bathroom.
The “characters” in our Black Fedora production were right out of the playbook: the bumbling detective in a trench coat, the French maid, a Southern janitor with an accent as thick as his waist, a dead body named Mr. Body. It was ridiculously perfect.
Some of the participating audience members really got into it. Overly-Invested-Guy Number 1 tried to start out with a Hercule Poirot accent, but sounded like Kermit the Frog by the time he was finished. Overly-Invested-Lady Number 1 took on the spirit medium role so intently, I thought she was trying to channel Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter. To re-enact the dead body, Overly-Invested-Guy Number 2 had to lie down in front of everyone with one shoe off, sans sock, toes-to-ceiling-tiles, for what had to be the longest five minutes of his life.
The Dinner Detective show was definitely different in a good way. We were encouraged to start hittin’ the hooch and chat people up right out of the gate. The host gave us a list of sample questions, like “How many times have you wanted to kill your boss?” and “Do I look good in this outfit?”
Outside of your murder vic and the manic (and maniacally funny) coppers leading each segment, there’s no way to know who is a planted actor and who is, literally, a rural county librarian out for an exciting evening.
Overly-Invested-Guy Number 1 thought one of the blokes at our table was one of the actors and while on the way to the loo, he offered him $50 if he would admit it. To be fair, that bloke at our table — Overly-Invested-Guy Number 2 — was a real hoot-and-a-half. I, too, thought he was a plant.
Little tips are “discovered” as the evening goes along and shared with each table. I observed Overly-Invested-Lady Number 1 when we were told to check under our chairs for a clue and she actually flipped over the chairs at her table.
I may or may not have been Overly-Invested-Lady Number 2 when during the reveal phase, I observed a woman across the room slowly rise and head toward the exit. I pointed in her direction and hollered out, “Hey! Wait a minute! Where do you think you’re going?” to which she calmly barked back at me, “I have a cramp” and limped out the door. It made for another good laugh at the end of the night when a gentleman approached me and said, “Were you a prop?” and I had to honestly answer him with, “I’m afraid not, sir.”