When looking for someone to direct their latest show, “Crab Cakes and Murder,” the Kenai Performers stage group went to one of the peninsula’s most experienced hands.
The murder mystery dinner theater show, which runs Sept. 27 and 28 and Oct. 4 and 5, brings a familiar face to the central peninsula theater scene. Michael Druce, a retired high school drama teacher who still remains active in the theater community on the central peninsula, will direct the show.
Druce hasn’t directed a play since 2015, but wrote the script for the dinner theater production that will run on consecutive weekends. All four evenings start with dinner at 6:30 p.m. and the show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 and available at River City Books, online or at the door.
“Crab Cakes and Murder” will be Druce’s ninth show for the Kenai Performers over the last decade. Druce said by his count, he’s produced 42 shows at SoHi over a two-decade run from 1993 to 2013. Including the work he did before that, Druce estimates he has about 140 shows under his directorial belt.
“I haven’t retired at all,” Druce stressed. “It’s just the last show I did direct was 2015. The reason I haven’t done anything in between was because I’ve had some things going on.”
The experience shows, according to his staff of actors. After all, setting the stage for a good murder mystery doesn’t just happen by accident.
“Mike’s been writing murder mysteries for many years, so he’s got the formula down pretty well,” said Jamie Nelson, a veteran actor who has worked with Druce for years. “He almost always produces what he writes, and so he’ll write what he thinks is a solid script, and as he’s directing it, he’ll come up with slightly better ideas than he originally had.”
This particular show is produced by Donna Shirnberg, who will join Druce in setting the environment for a murder mystery that enhances the best talent the peninsula has to offer. Veteran actor Ian McEwen said Druce’s attention to detail goes a long way in setting up the actor for success.
“He definitely understands the style of humor that works well for something like this,” McEwen said. “You’ve got to have terrible puns and lame jokes … he enjoys working with the staff to find ways to make the audience laugh. He gives us a great framework to hang stuff on, and then we find bits and pieces.”
The current show employs all the required twists, turns and props of any good murder mystery, which will engage the audience at times to help sift through the evidence of “whodunit?”
The audience will sit center stage as the events take place, including a funeral scene in which the audience itself is treated as if they’re attending. Druce said that dynamic establishes an intimacy that isn’t felt on a traditional stage environment.
“People will respond more, they will laugh more as a group,” Druce said. “It’s a whole different dynamic.”
Druce said compared to the traditional proscenium stage, which distances the audience from the action, the murder mystery plot will deliver at the feet of the crowd.
“It tends to be more interactive,” Druce said. “If you’re an actor, there’s a good possibility that when someone swings their chair in, you’re going to step on their foot. You’re that close to it.”
The show will include the audience in the funeral of the late Captain Savage Raines, the owner of Peg Legg Seafoods, who tragically dies at sea. The plot follows the questionable intentions of each character as they seek to gain from the untimely death of the Raines, played by Allen Auxier. A host of family members try to wiggle their way into his inheritance, including his wife Peggy Legg Raines (Teri Zopf-Schoessler), the captain’s brother-in-law Stone Crabbe (Nelson), the captain’s youngest daughter DeCadence Raines (Tracy Stange) and twin daughters Misery (Audra Faris) and Calamity (Lacey Jane Brewster) Raines.
McEwen’s character, the sheriff Sandy Shoals, makes his appearance as the investigation into Raines’ death deepens.
“I like how absurd it is,” Nelson said. “The circumstances and the stakes are artificially hilarious.”
McEwen said the two goals of the show is for people to have a great time and to get the audience involved, and said the challenge comes from gauging the feel of an audience and making up a quip on the spot.
“I ask them what they think of a piece of evidence,” he said. “It all depends on the feel of the moment.”
McEwen’s experience and quick wit is what makes him the right man for the job, Druce said, and McEwen said he has embraced the role.
“It is always fun when you get to break that fourth wall and change it up,” McEwen said. “It’s fun to get out there and let the audience feel like they’re inside the scene.”
With his long experience and resume of successful productions, Druce is expecting a full house and happy crowd.
“My personal goal is I want audiences to come here and have a good time,” Druce said. “Typically it’ll be a Friday night — the weekend is starting and people are getting off work. My goal is I want them to have a fun time. If they enjoy themselves, that’s what we want.”