This weekend, high school theater fans will have the chance to devour not just a murder mystery but a sit-down dinner, all in one evening at Prior Lake High School.
This is the first time the high school has offered a catered dinner-theater experience, complete with pork, roast beef and mashed potatoes, and director Jennifer Witt says she hasn’t heard of any other area high schools doing the same.
The dinner will be served before the performance of Agatha Christie’s melodramatic tale of unrequited love and murder in “Verdict.”
Witt, who has directed shows at PLHS since 2006, said she’s “toyed with the idea” of hosting a dinner theater for years, but because another event was always held the same weekend as the spring show, the commons area has been unavailable.
“Everything just fell together really nicely for me to do it this year,” she said.
Another first for Witt will be directing a mystery, which the school hasn’t done in 15 years.
The script “really spoke to me as something we could do here,” she said. “Each year when I make a choice of which show to do, I try to make it an educational experience as well as an entertaining one [for the students].”
With 10 students, the cast is “smaller and more intimate,” than some, but there also are four large roles, which gives more students a chance to perform, said Michele Lein, assistant director.
Patrons who bought tickets for Saturday’s sold-out dinner/theater combo also will have the most intimate seats, clustered around a rounded thrust stage that juts out into two rows of seats, Witt said.
Technical director Dave Tuma designed the set, which remains the same throughout the show, on a “very frugal” budget. He’s never created a thrust stage before, and used a turntable leftover from a previous musical to build it. “I always say, ‘They did it on Broadway. Why can’t we?’ ” he said.
The challenge of a mystery
The play’s plot centers around the Hendryks, a couple that has recently relocated to England. The husband, Karl, is a charming and successful professor, while wife, Anya, is in a wheelchair and fatally ill. Karl is soon manipulated into tutoring a wealthy, strong-willed student, Helen, who is infatuated with him.
Two deaths and a confession later, Karl turns to lifelong friend Lisa to cope, but Lisa ends up accused of murder.
As with many Agatha Christie plays, there’s lots of foreshadowing, and “everything in the show has a purpose,” said senior Taylor Strait, who plays Lisa.
While the play is alternately sad, dramatic and violent, it isn’t a comedy or a musical, which means the show isn’t broken up by jokes or rousing song-and-dance numbers, Witt said.
As a result, the cast must work hard to “keep the audience engaged and interested for that full two hours,” she said.
To do so, they must fully develop their characters, a challenge the cast said they have enjoyed doing over nine weeks of rehearsals.
Strait said her character is sophisticated, unlike the younger characters she’s played in the past. “I like that she means well but she still causes problems in the plot,” she said.
The role of affable Karl is played by Aaron Boger, who has starred in all 12 PLHS shows performed in the past four years.
One of his main challenges is portraying a 40-year-old man at age 18. “They can put the creases on your face and make your hair gray, but you still kind of have to act old,” he said.
He’s also worked with Witt, who has coached him on how Karl might act in different situations.
“It’s nice to be able to push myself in something I know I can get better at,” he said of acting in general.
“The goal is always to direct and guide them,” Lein said. “They’re all really independent, responsible kids, so if you kind of point them in the right direction, they work really hard.”
Behind the scenes, 25 to 30 other students work to make sure actors on stage have just the right prop or outfit at the right time, that the stage is well-lit and the set looks realistic.
Assistant stage manager Vanessa Keo said she appreciates “being a part of something bigger” than herself. She loves the initial read-through of the script, when she starts to envision how specific props will fit perfectly into a scene, she said.
Witt said the marker of success for the show — and her first time hosting a dinner theater — isn’t necessarily sold-out crowds.
Sure, she will be thrilled if students deliver their lines seamlessly, or audiences say they love the show. But “when kids walk away from this thinking they did an awesome job, that’s all I need to know,” she said.