Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 35
 
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
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Music/Theater

MAYHEM IN PRINCETON: Latter-day hippie and accused murderess Courtney Sturges (Carolyn Vasko, left) calls in Princeton’s “Junior League” detective Thalia Brown (Phoenix Gonzalez) and Thalia’s father Thomas Brown (Christopher Berger, right) in Marvin Cheiten’s new play, “Oh Deer!!” The comic murder mystery will be performed at Princeton’s Hamilton Murray Theater this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

“Oh Deer!!” Murder Mystery Farce at Hamilton Murray Theater, Features Wild Characters, Extravagant Antics in Local Setting

Donald Gilpin

The title — Oh Deer!! — tells you most of what you need to know about this new play by Marvin Cheiten, at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend. The pun — yes, there are many “deer” references, affecting (at least tangentially) the plot. Yes, “dear,” there is a convoluted romantic intrigue here. Yes, there is much distress throughout (“Oh, dear!”) for seven idiosyncratic characters. And, yes, the level of humor is less than sophisticated.

As for the two exclamation points — that sort of over-the-top calling attention to itself (“Look how outrageous and clever we are!”) characterizes every aspect of the production: the joke-filled script, the exaggerated acting styles and the gimmick-filled set, costume, and sound designs.

So, Mr. Cheiten, working again with Princeton-New York-Los Angeles director Dan Berkowitz on their seventh Hamilton Murray Theater collaboration, is not looking to enlighten audiences with profound truths. If there are any issues here to provoke thought or characters with depth of intellect or emotion, they are hidden well beneath the farcical extravagances of animal heads on the wall, a doorbell that growls like a tiger, and eccentric costumes and make-up to accentuate the one-dimensionality of the motley human menagerie presented here.

This is frothy, fun-filled fare for a summer evening. Note the subtitle with its additional exclamation point: “Tom and Thalia’s Zaniest Adventure Yet!” But despite more than one lame, less than scintillating attempt at humor, Oh Deer!! provides a pleasant 90-minute diversion from the late-summer, dog-days, when-will-this-recession-and-oppressive-humidity-end blues. The playwright, his talented director and their professional, highly skilled cast and crew obviously are enjoying themselves, and their audiences are too.

With Oh Deer!!, Mr. Cheiten, a major benefactor of Princeton Summer Theater and of Princeton University’s student-run Theatre Intime, is producing his ninth new play at the Hamilton Murray Theater, seven of them directed by Mr. Berkowitz.

Marvin Cheiten’s “Oh Deer!!” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for three more performances, August 27-29, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call (609) 258-7062 for information.

Oh Deer!! is the story of a murder investigation at the Princeton home of the passionately intense and inane poet and hard-core huntress Letitia Thimbleweight (Claudia Stoy), a character who was also featured four years ago in Mr. Cheiten’s Miss Connections (2006). Loud shrieks, the sound of gun shots, and flashing lights open the play and set the less-than-subtle tone of the evening.

Letitia’s husband has been shot, and the prime suspect is Letitia’s orange-spiked-haired hippie niece Courtney (Carolyn Vasko), who moved in with her aunt and uncle just six months earlier after her parents were mysteriously killed in the midst of a Princeton deer hunt. Arriving immediately on the scene are the only two realistic characters in the play, 20-year-old Thalia Brown (Phoenix Gonzales) and her father Tom (Chris Berger), experienced crime solvers from previous Cheiten productions, Miss Connections and Whizzer’s Island (2007). They are the “straight men,” who engage the audience and set off the wackiness of the surrounding eccentrics. An appealing father-daughter duo in the urbane, bantering style of Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man, Thalia and her father work through the clues and strategize together in their efforts to exonerate Courtney and to find and convict the real criminal.

The dapper Inspector Schnitt (Joseph Thomas), complete with Sherlock Holmes hat, heavy German accent and heavily mannered speech and movement, soon appears to undertake the formal investigation, using his huge magnifying glass to ostentatious effect in controlling and intimidating the other characters.

Contributing further to the confusions and the peculiarity of this ensemble are Letitia’s emotional, flirtatious, elderly, rather masculine maid (Curtis Kaine, a burly, deep-voiced actor dressed in formal housemaid attire — until, that is, he changes into a lavishly decorated pink tutu, gossamer cape, and tiara for the final scene) and Tony (Nicholas Genta), Letitia’s “pool boy” and the love interest of more than one character here. His leather jacket, gold chains, rolled up T-shirt sleeves with cigarette pack and “Joisey” accent rapidly establish him as a particular type, Princeton University graduate Tom’s worst nightmare as a boyfriend for his daughter.

As the murder investigations and plot twists continue, Courtney is arrested and taken to a Mercer County Correctional Facility, where Thalia visits her in an attempt to plumb the depths of the mystery and free her friend. Thalia suspects that the menacing Letitia, who first appears in camouflage with rifle in hand, committed the murder and framed Courtney in order to seize the inheritance of Courtney’s parents and of her own husband. But how can Thalia find proof to overcome the blatant appearance of Courtney’s guilt? And what do the suspiciously odd Agatha and the annoyingly lascivious Tony know that they aren’t telling? And why won’t Courtney, as she makes the most of the off-beat fashion possibilities in her orange prison jump suit, tell her helpful friend Thalia what she was doing at the time of her uncle’s murder?

Princeton references and witty (and some less witty) one-liners abound. Extravagant costumes by Marie Miller capture the outrageous, farcical tone of the production and the eccentric excesses of the individual characters. Jeff Van Velsor’s substantial set — with an extraordinary array of props by Sarah Donner and effective lighting by Christopher Gorzelnik — creates in impressive detail Letitia’s ominously well appointed, wood paneled living room, complete with about a dozen wild animal heads and a dazzling display of weaponry on the wall.

So if the traditional aim of theater is to entertain and to educate, this production of Oh Deer!! — with its abundant humor, its experienced, high-energy, talented cast, and its high quality production values — can at least make valid claims to fulfill the first of those two goals. Your education can wait for the start of the fall term after Labor Day.

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