Remember that popular TV show of the Aughts, Cold Case? Set right here in the City of Brotherly … ahem, Love, Cold Case featured a division of the Philadelphia Police Department whose mission was to solve those cold cases, murders dredged up from the past, which remained unsolved until the crack detectives of this section cracked them and brought the criminals to justice.
Now imagine a case that’s not just cold, but locked in deep Arctic freeze. As in almost 125 years. Could such a case still be solved? That’s the premise behind Murder By Gaslight, a delightful piece of interactive theatre put together by Without A Cue Productions. The cold case here is the 1899 murder of Dr. Benjamin Winchester. The investigation is led by someone who is deeply invested in finding the killer: Dr. Winchester himself. Well, the very animated ghost of Dr. Winchester.
While still alive, Dr. Winchester was an alienist, a medical specialty more commonly referred to today as a psychiatrist. Dr. Winchester himself seemed to specialize in diagnosing “troublesome women” and having them committed for unspecified amounts of time to mental asylums. As Winchester sees it, “troublesome women” are those rebels not at all content with the subservient roles generally assigned them in the 19th century and, therefore, clearly a danger to themselves and others.
At the beginning of our expedition, Winchester is, not surprisingly, most interested in finding out who did him in. But having been the victim of a somewhat clever murder, all the not-so-good doctor has to share with us are clues and suspicions. We the audience members are asked to examine both and then try to figure out which of the likely candidates for killer was the one who actually shoved Winchester out the exit.
In fact, all four of the other characters we meet have a strong motive for seeing Winchester check out early. Three of these figures have motive, mobility and method. Participants need to analyse all the clues, all the interactions between Winchester and the suspects we witness, and then decide who is the most likely candidate. Ad hoc sleuths who make up the audience are strongly encouraged to ask questions of Dr. Winchester to gather further evidence. You’ll find that Winchester is at points even more evasive than the suspects we encounter, which adds to the amusement of solving the mystery.
The program ends with the participants casting their ballots for who the killer is – or rather, was. You vote via cell phone, and the one who solves the case most quickly wins that evening’s prize.
If you’re one of those theatre-goers who say one disadvantage of going to the theatre is that you don’t get enough exercise sitting there watching a show for hours (sometimes without even a short intermission to stretch your legs), this production solves that problem along with the mystery. You meet just outside the Liberty Bell Center, proceed to the nearby scene of the crime, and are then led by the energetic ghost of Dr. Winchester to Independence Square, and from there, on to the historic park that sits between 5th and 4th Streets. It’s in these locales that we meet a chemist skilled in the production of drugs lethal and otherwise; Winchester’s estranged wife; the daughter of a prominent local judge: and a jeweller whose wife has been “treated” by Dr. Winchester.
Murder By Gaslight is an entertaining production and runs only about an hour from discovery of the body to awarding of the prize. It’s actually a quite pleasant way to start an evening on the town. You can spend a happy hour solving the mystery, then head out to a restaurant, bar or club to complete the evening.
The Without A Cue cast does all it can to see that the evening starts out with a lot of fun. Ricky Franco is delightfully obnoxious as Benjamin Winchester, while Sharese Salters doubles up as Winchester’s wife Emmeline and Alice Doyle, the judge’s daughter. Joseph Croft takes on a double assignment as Franco’s frenemy, chemist Edward Norton, and Herman Heides, the jeweller who has his own reasons for despising Winchester. Carly Neduscin serves as a very helpful hostess and also does some service as Winchester’s maid. Company executive director Traci Connaughton handled the direction of the show, though a good deal of performance is - of necessity – improv.
Places on this mystery tour must be booked beforehand on either the Theatre Philadelphia or Without A Cue website. Once you’ve made your purchase, your name will be added to the list and you just need to identify yourself when you arrive, then get ready for the fun to follow.