Play review: Murder in Triplicate

Of course, April wouldn’t be complete without my annual visit to Candlelight Theatre. This local play company that performs inside the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is a real gem. Resident playwright James Trofatter, along with Donna Wing (the creative director of the troupe), wrote three more engaging murder vignettes for this spring production. Trofatter and Wing shared in the directing responsibilities too.

Candlelight Theatre usually performs either a single play that takes place throughout the house or three shorter plays performed in different rooms of the house. In either case, the audience rotates through the house to see the different scenes or plays. Murder in Triplicate was the latter case: three plays performed in various rooms (the dining room, the master bedroom, and the back parlor).

I started out in the dining room with the performance of The Photograph Album. I recognized John West, Heather Wing, and James Trofatter immediately. The story, set in 1927, was engaging. A sister and brother were involved in a yearly ritual: looking through a family photo album in hopes of uncovering some long buried secret that would explain why their parents died in a murder-suicide. Twists and turns and unnatural manipulations of a photo revealed unknown family secrets.

Next, my group was led up the front stairs to the master bedroom, where Benjamin Harrison died in 1901. As we waited for the bell to toll, to signal the three plays to begin (the plays all start and end at roughly the same time…there must be an art to writing and performing plays of similar lengths), I felt my ears prick up in canine-like curiosity.

One of the actresses was sitting in a chair covered with a crazy quilt—once again showing how the troupe makes good use of their Victorian surrounding. (Crazy quilts were a brief fad of upper class wealthy women in the late 1800s—and this play was set in 1898.) Then I noticed that the bedspread on the Harrison bed was a crazy quilt. I did not remember seeing that before.

I asked our room hostess about it; the one on the chair was a prop but the one on the bed was original. As we filed out of the room, I peered at the quilt but not long enough to gain any satisfaction. I noticed signatures in the scraps of clothes used to make the quilt and a fan shape—a nod to the Orientalism of the time. The hostess later explained that the Site rotates the spreads on the bed. (So maybe I didn’t notice it before because it wasn’t there…or it was before I knew about crazy quilts.)

In this second play, The Companion, I recognized Sue Beecher, always a delight to see perform. I did not recognize Tim Long or Laura Kuhn from previous performances, but all were excellent. As usual, things in the play weren’t always what they seem. Sue played a grouchy invalid wife, Tim her loving and devoted husband, and Laura her nurse accused of murdering a previous patient.

During intermission, we were shepherded down to the basement for a biobreak. The basement is lined with photos, which to my amazement seemed to be different than earlier visits. Photos ranged from those of Harrison’s grandfather (William Henry), Benjamin Harrison himself with other generals in the Civil War, himself as a staunch upright patriarch, and one of Lincoln as a young attorney and counselor at law (as written on the photograph).

The third play, Betsy, took place in the back parlor. I immediately recognized Ellis Hall, Donna Wing, and Ken Eder. Often a ham on rye, this time Ken played a maniacal lawyer. Set in 1925, this play centered on a pair of newlyweds who married after a brief romance. The wife slowly learns from the lawyer the twisted family circumstances that she married into. Again, nothing is quite as it seems.

When Candlelight Theatre productions are three separate plays rather than one long one, the cast gathers in the front hallway to greet the audience as they leave. First up was James Trofatter whom I thanked for all of the plays that he has written and I have enjoyed. He seemed a bit taken aback (which made me wonder how many people are regular attendees—his reaction suggested that I might be an odd duck).

As I worked my way down the line of actors, the tables turned. Donna Wing expressed that she was happy to see me, that she recognized me from previous productions. It was my turn to be a bit taken aback. Of course, in the setting of a historical home where the actors perform a mere inches from the audience (and on occasion include the audience), it shouldn’t be surprising that the audience registers with the actors. Her noticing my attendance at production after production caught me a bit off guard but added to the delight of the evening.

Murder in Triplicate runs for another weekend. But if you cannot make it, any of their productions would be fantastic to see. (Be sure to stop by the house for a tour too.) Candlelight Theatre used to perform just spring and fall productions, but in recent years expanded to include more productions. Next up is in July—The Trial of Nancy Clem—a previous production perhaps (Cold Blooded) but this time being performed at the nearby beautifully restored Indiana Landmarks Center.

La Porte County Historical Society Museum: Everything but the cars

Our rationale for going to the museum was to see the Kesling Auto Collection, but of course, I had to see the rest of the museum too.

The museum consists of three levels. Like all county museums, the collections are a bit eclectic, revealing the local character.

As you walk into the museum, you are greeted with lots and lots exhibit cases with a mishmash of items from the 19th and 20th centuries: glassware, old cameras, old currency, dolls (including a collection of replicas of former First Ladies), dishes, toys, etc. The collections are a bit overwhelming.

A couple things in particular jumped out at me. As I was scanning the cases, I spied a Lincoln metal medallion—a profile of President Lincoln that was embedded in the markers for the original Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway in the US. I was so excited…until a little later I saw an original marker in its entirety—a concrete marker with a medallion embedded along with a large letter L to mark the highway for travelers. These markers have disappeared over the decades so it was a real joy to see one in the flesh.

The second item in the exhibit cases that stood out to me was the currency. The exhibit included Confederate currency, US currency during the Civil War, and even foreign currency. Before US greenbacks were the legal tender, anyone it seems could create their own currency. I know banks and states routinely did. But there I was looking at the currency for the Plank Road Company. Clearly, companies issued their own currency too.

What also piqued my interest about this particular currency was the name: Plank Road. I had recently learned (in the Jefferson County Historical Society History Center) about the evolution of road construction: first corduroy roads, then plank roads, then gravel and macadam roads. Here was currency from a company named after (and presumably engaged in) the process of building roads made of planks of wood: Plank Road Company currency.

Past these exhibit cases stand replicas of Main Street storefronts from different time periods. In front of each are cars from the corresponding eras. Beyond the storefronts are rooms set up to depict different eras with artifacts from those eras. Each room has so many item; it is hard to soak them all in and a single perusal isn’t be sufficient.

First up in a log cabin (a replica?) inhabited  by the first European resident of La Porte County, Miriam Benedict, who died in 1854. The cabin is chock full of item, but my eyes fell on the pie safe. Really? Would a log cabin contain a pie safe? I am skeptical but squirreled away that fact for later verifying.

The other rooms move through the eras more or less chronologically:

  • Beauty shop/barber shop
  • Victorian law office (Is that a beaver top hat I saw? I first learned about the beaver hat industry, the use of mercury, and the origin of the subsequent phrase “mad as a hatter” at the Old French House and Indian Museum in Vincennes.)
  • Music room with pieces from the old La Porte Theatre (1923-1977)
  • Room of the 1840s-1850s (strangely called the Empire Room…I’m confused because the Empire era was the early 1800s…)
  • Victorian parlor (Oh look! There are stereoscopes that I have been seeing in historical homes everywhere this last year.)
  • Victorian dining room
  • Victorian bedroom (Hey! There is a dresser with an over large first drawer for storing quilts. I first learned about the reasons for these over large top drawers at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site.)
  • Dentist/doctor office
  • One-room schoolhouse
  • 1920s dining room
  • 1920s kitchen (replete with Hoosier cupboard and a fridge with the compressor on the top…darn if I can remember where I recently learned about fridges with compressors on the top.)
  • 1950s living room
  • General store

A strange collection of items hangs from a wall next to the dentist/doctor office. Invalid cups. I peered closer. Oh! IN-va-lid cups, not in-VALID cups. These ceramic cups with an elongated spout were the 19th century precursor to straws of the 20th century. These cups were meant to be used by people too weak or sick to drink from cups.

The basement contains different collections, one of the largest being the W.A. Jones gun collection. Williams A. Jones willed his extensive collection to the museum, which took possession of it following his death in 1921. Jones collected these 1,000+ antique guns in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is considered to be one of the best collections. I imagine gun enthusiasts would go nuts. (Not being one myself, I couldn’t fully appreciate the collection.)

Nearby are the ubiquitous war exhibits with the Civil War being prominent, though there are war souvenirs from WWII. Police and firefighters have their own exhibits too. As a nod to county museum eccentricities, model trains are within spitting distance.

One corner contains a barn/blacksmith site with all sorts of farming and blacksmith implements. Some items are easily identifiable. (After visiting the Schroeder Saddletree Factory, I have a fledgling knowledge of saddles and hames.) Others stirred vague memories. Still others from a time I am very much removed from. One point of note is the dog-powered butter churn. (Yes, really.) The contraption is missing the connection to the butter churn but the treadmill is fully assembled. (I saw a more complete specimen at the DuBois County Historical Museum.)

(Confession: I honestly walked by the dog-powered butter churn without seeing it. I happened to mention to my dad about seeing one in another county museum, to which he casually mentioned that they had one here. Really? And then off I went to try to find it. I find it hilarious that dogs were put to work to churn butter. Says something about human ingenuity—and the need for all members of the family to contribute.)

Next to the barn/blacksmith site is a room dedicated to Belle Gunness, kind of a macabre claim to fame for the county. Belle was the 19th serial killer of La Porte County. I first learned of Belle through original plays performed by Candlelight Theatre in Indianapolis. And now I was perusing a collection that recounted her gristly practice of advertising for husbands (the reverse of the modern mail-order bride), who “disappeared”, leaving Belle with their money and life insurance.

The rest of the basement houses odds and ends of collections. A corner is devoted to natural history with fossils and other geological artifacts as well as taxidermied animals. Corners call out county schools and sports (nearly as ubiquitous in county museums as war exhibits). A Boy Scouts collection, including a copy of the Order of the Arrow Handbook, inhabits another corner. Exhibit cases contain various musical instruments as well as household items. (Hey, that potato masher from the 1900s looks familiar!) Along one wall is a long bar, the kind you would see in a saloon from days past. (You know, the kind that a bartender in the movie slides a beer down.)

The second floor is mostly devoted to cars from the Kelsing Auto Collection. However, interspersed among the cars are exhibit cases that hold all sorts of toys (including toy cars and vehicles).

Come to the museum for the cars but stay for the other collections. Or vice versa, come for the historical collections about the county but stay for the car collection. Either way, this county museum is a real gem.

Play review: Victorian Villains

October would not be complete without a play by Candlelight Theatre at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.

Candlelight Theatre performed another James Trofatter production, Victorian Villains. The premise was similar, though the content completely different, to last year.

The audience members were potential trainees at a school. Our guide, a descendant of Dr. Watson, guided us through the school where we met various villains to learn their tactics and hear advice. (Planning is key! Don’t get greedy.)

In this production, we were led through different rooms of the house, sometimes standing as the villains talked, other times sitting. The rooms we entered were the typical ones (parlor, library, dining room, sitting room, Harrison’s bedroom, ballroom) plus another one (the bedroom that contains the photo of Old Whiskers).

The audience I was with for the most part seemed new to Candlelight Theatre and the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. But they seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and get into interactions with the actors.

The villains that we met were many and varied. Two were women from Indiana: Nancy Clem and Belle Gunness. Nancy Clem was a woman in 19th century Indianapolis charged with murder and prosecuted by Benjamin Harrison. (Candlelight Theatre has done and is scheduled to do again a play devoted to Nancy Clem.)

Others were villains throughout the US and the UK. Some I knew: H.H. Holmes, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Lizzie Andrew Borden, Jack the Ripper, and Hannibal Lecter. Holmes is perhaps the least well-known in the list. He is famous for murders during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. I was first introduced to him on an Irvington ghost tour due to the murders he committed in that Indiana town.)

Some were new to me: the Bloody Benders, Mary Ann Cotton, William Palmer, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, William Burke, Dr. Robert Knox, Sweeney Todd, and Mrs. Lovett. Those from the British Isles were overrepresented among serial killers in the play.

The Bloody Benders ran a general store and way station for travelers in Kansas, killing dozens of travelers that stopped.

Mary Ann Cotton, a serial killer in the UK, poisoned several husbands and then a stepson with arsenic. William Palmer was an English doctor who poisoned family members and associates with strychnine, and then collected on insurance policies.

Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was another British serial killer, who engaged in baby farming (taking in unwanted infants for money)…and up to 400 deaths of babies in her care.

William Burke (along with a William Hare) committed 16 murders to supply Dr. Robert Knox with corpses for his anatomy lectures in Edinburgh. (Apparently grave robbing or corpse resurrection wasn’t sufficient.)

Sweeney Todd was a barber in London who dispatched his customers/victims via a trapdoor, and then Mrs. Lovett used their bodies in her famously delicious meat pies.

Many of the actors were old hands and were a delight to see in action again: Heather Wing (Dr. Watson), Ken Eder (H.H. Holmes), Donna Wing (Nancy Clem), and Dennis Jones (William Palmer). Alas, James Trofatter was absent from his own play.

Victorian Villains was a well-done production and an enjoyable way to celebrate Halloween. And as advertised, the school taught lessons to its trainees.

Lessons learned: Stay away from people who seem to be a black hole for missing people. Be careful if anyone takes out an insurance policy on you, or learns that you have money. Always sit with your back against a wall and never on top of a trap door. (You never know when someone will try to bash in your skull with a hammer from behind a curtain.) And watch out for poison.

Play review: Murder Most Merry

This spring Candlelight Theatre presented another delightful trio of plays. Candlelight Theatre performs twice annually at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site (though their 2017-2018 season will consist of four productions!).

The historical home of our 23rd President is the perfect backdrop for period play productions. Candlelight Theatre productions are either single stories that unfold in different rooms in the house or a collection of thirty-minute plays performed in different rooms.

Murder Most Merry was of the latter type. Audience members were assigned one of three rooms: the back parlor, the dining room, or the attic. After one play ended, audience members moved to the next room—and the next play. As usual, an intermission in the basement took place after two plays had been performed.

I started out in the dining room. The docent attached to us was quite talkative before each of the plays started—and knowledgeable about house. (It turns out that she was a high school teacher in a previous life.) In the dining room, we learned all about the silver, the White House china designed for Harrison, Mrs. Harrison’s Presbyterian roots being the motivation for her indefatigable work, her conservation of the White House, and the renovation of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. Did I mention that the docent was quite talkative?

On occasion, Candlelight Theatre involves the audience in their plays. The first play in the dining room was one of those. Such a Nice Little Kitty was a three-person (and one cat) play. Walter, the husband, is distraught by the noise of their obscenely large cat—which of course, hates him and loves his wife. In the end, one of them doesn’t survive to see daylight. The dialogue was witty, and the audience “involved” as Walter looks for the darn cat underneath the audience’s seats. I enjoyed recognizing actors that I have seen in previous performances. The wife, Sue Beecher, was one of those repeat actors.

Next up was the play in the attic. We wound up the main staircase to the third floor. The bits and pieces of the Presidential Pet exhibit were all around us. To my left was the blown-up picture of Harrison’s adult son Russell with Benjamin Harrison’s grandchildren and Old Whiskers the goat. (I have a soft spot for Old Whiskers.)

The play in the attic—The Case of the Well-Staged Murder—was a radio play set in November 1947 and performed before a live audience. The play was a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery. A man is shot in a park on a cold, rainy evening. Who did it? Sherlock Holmes does not disappoint us. (Ellis Hall as Sherlock was another Candlelight Theatre actor that I recognized from past performances.)

The actors file in, preparing for the radio play. As the audience, we see their props for sound effects to imitate walking on gravel, the roll of thunder, gunshots, or doors opening and closing. At different times throughout the play, an ad cut in for a line of men’s clothing—the dapper Dr. Watson modeled the clothing for us. We were asked to applaud with an Applause sign. Again, the audience was a participant in the play—a typical occurrence in Candlelight Theatre productions.

The last play of the evening—An Inspector Answers—was held in the back parlor on the first floor. I had not seen several other regular actors yet so I was pleasantly surprised with this play. Most of the actors were regulars that I recognized—James Trofatter, Donna Wing, Heather Wing, and of course, Ken Eder.

The minute that Ken walked through the door, I gasped in delight. I love Ken Eder. He is a complete ham on rye. An Inspector Answers was a silly play with absurd dialogue and situations that leave you laughing. For example, every time mention was made of the wife going to the country for a visit, everyone turned to look at a painting of a country scene. Or when they pulled guns on each other, they kept shifting in unison who they aimed their guns at.

The husband is accused of murdering his wife. But through twists and turns, and a love triangle (or quadrangle…I lost track), the plot and motives change. The actors clearly had a hoot with this play. And so did the audience.

I highly recommend any production that Candlelight Theatre puts on. Their plays are enjoyable, the acting superb, and the ambiance delightful. The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is the perfect spot for their productions.

While you are at it, stop back for a tour of the house. It is well worth it. And be sure to look for the photo of Old Whiskers in one of the bedrooms—and while the Presidential Pet exhibit is running, in the attic.

Play review: The Witching Hour

As their Halloween production for 2016, Candlelight Theatre performed snippets in individual rooms throughout the Benjamin Harrison house. As usual, the audience moved between the rooms—sometimes sitting for these mini performances, other times standing.

We started out in the barn behind the house. We, the audience, were prospective students, visiting Convention, the only school of wizardry and witchcraft in North America. Grimm, our witch hostess, greeted us and introduced us to a professor with German heritage, Abramelin the Mage, the dean of the school. Grimm then led us through the school, introducing us to different professors and aspects of wizardry that we would learn if we enroll.

First up was communication with and control of demons and ghosts. We were introduced to the ghost of John Bell and the ghost of Kate, who haunted the house where John and his family lived in Tennessee in the early 1800s. Ultimately Ignis Fatuus, professor of Ghostology and Demonology, was unable to banish the ghosts.

In the next room, we met the professor in charge of teaching spells, particularly those of love, money, and protection. Most important, Glamorous Jinx told us, do not just repeat empty words but use words that have meaning for you. After the professor left, a student from a European school entered our room, accidentally having gotten off at the wrong flue (chimney flues are “train stops” in the wizard transportation system). A spat ensued between her and Grimm. Clearly, she saw the Convention as an inferior school, and had a revulsion to wizards having anything to do with muggles (or mundanes, as Grimm referred to us).

In the dining room, we were introduced to three figures who practiced the black arts: Etienne Guibourgh, Malleus Maleficarum, and Grace Sowerbutts. Grimm warned us against following their lead and selling our souls to attain the skills they had.

On the second floor, we met two professors of divination: one practiced in the arts of phrenology and tarot reading, the other practiced in the art of intestine reading. The former took a volunteer from the audience to check his skull and report on his character. The latter attempted to perform a reading of another volunteer’s intestines but was prevented from carrying it out by Grimm.

In Harrison’s bedroom, Grimm informed us that this was the bed where Harrison died. (This is actually true. He died of the flu in that bed in 1901.) Two witches sat patiently and then began to spat amongst themselves. They were Glinda the Good (aka Glinda of The Magickal Realms) and the Wicked Witch of the West (aka Elphaba of The Magickal Realms) from The Wizard of Oz. In between arguing among themselves, they described the lands that they ruled over and how The Wizard of Oz had gotten many facts terribly wrong.

Our last stop was the attic where scenes from the Salem witch trials were re-enacted. Two different women (Tituba and Bridget Bishop) were interrogated by Judge John Hathorne. One confessed and was eventually released. The other one denied all charges against her and was eventually killed.

The re-enactment was followed by the three witches from Macbeth. Grimm asked them for a prognostication about the election. After throwing items into their cauldron, they recounted their vague prediction in verse. When Grimm protested that it was too vague, she was reminded that a more precise prediction would cost money.

After a little more than an hour, the 2016 Halloween production of Candlelight Theatre came to an end. A few actors and actresses were ones that I had seen in former Candlelight Theatre productions: Grimm (Donna Wing), the judge of the Salem witch trials (Ken Eder), and one of the witches from Macbeth (Sue Beecher).

This production was different from past years when a coherent narrative, such as the trial of Nancy Clem, played out across different rooms in the house, or when audiences rotated between 3 twenty- to thirty-minute plays. The downside to productions with snippets or a single play that is performed throughout the house: the audience never has a chance to applaud or meet the performers. Instead, with productions that end in the attic, audiences are led out the side door. Into the darkened night we go, a fitting end for a Halloween production but rather anti-climatic with no way to thank the actors.

If you enjoy plays, any production of Candlelight Theatre will be a treat. Candlelight Theatre performs productions twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. They perform exclusively in the Benjamin Harrison house, a house built in 1874—the perfect backdrop for the period plays that the group performs. Their plays are often original productions written by James Trofatter. The intimacy of the actors and the audience creates an atmosphere that you do not experience at a typical playhouse.