By Amber Marra -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK-- Lately, one question has been on the lips of the patrons of Joe's Steakhouse in Woodstock: Who killed Mitch Maverick?
Upon walking in on certain nights in July, customers found the restaurant and bar transformed into the set of "Murder at the Deadwood Saloon," "where the whiskey never runs dry and the saloon girls are fresh."
A tinny piano played in the background and characters from the Old West cavorted during a poker tournament with a $100,000 prize on the line.
As saloon girls strutted around with feathers in their hair and debutantes swished by in elegant umbrella dresses, cowboys tipped their hats and outlaws took shots of whiskey and leaned ominously against the wall.
Meanwhile, the card game continued in the center of the room and it became evident that this wasn't the most honest group in the West.
At one point the owner of the Deadwood Saloon, Harry High-Stakes, played by Joe Wobbe, owner of Joe's Steakhouse, was presented with a proposition by the smooth-talking Montgomery Money, played by Marc Williams, to hand over his saloon for a "pretty penny."
"I would soon rather commit murder than hand over my saloon to the likes of outsiders like you," High-Stakes loudly proclaimed to Money and his daughter Minnie Money, played by Kerry Keihn.
High-Stakes wasn't completely innocent, either, as it is revealed that he has had a hand in a bank robbery in Deadwood with outlaws Black Barbara, played by Lisa Mikitarian, and Jesse Wales, played by Tyler Black.
Eventually, Maverick is found to be the winner of the $100,000 prize and is set to be given his winnings in front of the entire saloon.
Then the room is engulfed in blackness and a shot goes off. When the lights come back up, Maverick is lying on the ground, murdered.
But with all of the suspicious characters and villains about, who could it be?
The only aspect giving away the fallacy of this scene taken straight from a Western movie were the shrieks of delight and gasps from the audience of diners attempting to figure out who committed murder in the Deadwood Saloon.
Wobbe decided to try out the concept of mystery dinner theater in June after hearing his producer and script writer, Kim Williams, talk about seeing a similar play in Virginia Beach and one she held at her home.
"We're always open to new venues and what we can do to help bring something new to the community," Wobbe said.
The 10 actors began rehearsing as a whole about two weeks before the initial performance on July 21, which came together in a chaotic atmosphere due to the inexperience of some of the actors and to the inebriated nature of the audience that night.
"The first performance was insane. People were there at 5 just to drink, and we were sometimes battling the audience just to say our lines," said Shaunbay Pendleton, who doubled as director and Banker Bonnie. "If it hadn't been for those drunk people, though, it wouldn't have been as fun because we were all really nervous."
In preparation for the event, Mrs. Williams drew not only from her experiences at her private party and the dinner theater she participated in at the beach, but also did some research.
"We watch a lot of Westerns at home, and I did research on the time period and the verbiage from the 1870s," she said.
Then the cast not only had to put on their best Western accents and costumes, many of the theater novices also had to be trained in the basics of blocking and stage terminology.
This was only partially evident during performances, as some players tended to improvise not only their lines, but also the nature of their characters.
"At first I was just going to pretend to be drunk out there, but just a subtle drunk," Russell said. "Then I went and butchered the line and made myself look wasted, so now that's how I'm going to have to be the rest of the night."
The improvisation didn't seem to hinder the audience as they dug into their three-course dinner of salad and either steak, scallops or soup in a bread bowl with a dessert option.
Meanwhile, characters went from table to table asking for bribes of the fake money handed out in exchange for information that could lead to who murdered Maverick. Tables were also given a "who dun it" card and a copy of the Deadwood Gazette outlining the background of the saloon and each of the suspected murderers.
A list of evidence was also provided, including a list of signals believed to be used in the plan to cheat in the poker tournament taken from Maverick, a foreclosure notice on the saloon indicating great financial debt, the murder weapon found to be a Colt single-action Army revolver, an article showing that Montgomery Money may not have so much money after all, and a Western Union telegram.
"I thought this would be fun, I haven't done anything like this in years. I just wish there were more things like this in Shenandoah County," said Kim Dickerson, a diner from Edinburg.
Though the last performance of the summer was on July 29, Wobbe plans on structuring a new mystery and script with a different outcome, but similar reward of a $30 gift card to Joe's, in the fall.
Until then, the participants will have to be satisfied that their ability to nail a sly, Southern gentleman's demeanor couldn't cover up the fact that every audience was able to figure out that it was indeed Montgomery Money who committed murder at the Deadwood Saloon.