I don’t think I’ve ever been as delighted for something to start a few minutes late as I was for “Riddle Puzzle Plot.” “Yes,” I thought to myself, “this does feel kind of like an opening night.”
Written by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for Zoom, produced by Park Square Theatre and featuring top Twin Cities actors, “Riddle Puzzle Plot” isn’t exactly theater — obviously, we can’t gather in a room for that — but it’s what we have now and it’s pretty delightful.
The four-episode mystery’s characters are also in a pandemic. They were supposed to perform the annual summer thriller at the fictitious Mystery Island Old Dark House Theater, but instead they’re sheltering in place in individual cabins, teleconferencing (as we do), when their impresario, Arno, croaks. That leaves the six others to solve his death as well as the apparent murder of a previous cast member, using a trail of clues left by Arno (E.J. Subkoviak). Also, there are interactive elements: riddles for us to solve and live chat rooms where we can grill suspects.
Two episodes in, I have no idea who the murderer is, although I hope it’s Sun Mee Chomet’s sleekly amusing Saskia (you can catch up at Park Square’s website; new episodes appear each weekend but there’s an option to watch whenever you want). I’m not sure I even care whodunit, since Hatcher deliberately made Arno the sort of pretentious blowhard who’s practically begging to be poisoned. The fun, instead, is in the glittery/sarcastic banter, which makes “Riddle Puzzle Plot” like what might have happened if Joseph L. Mankiewicz had thought to equip his “All About Eve” characters with weapons as well as quips.
My favorite is Shanan Custer as Arno’s ex-wife, who guzzles Red Bulls and tosses acidic snarkbombs like this one, directed at tech-challenged Arno: “If you can hear me, say something that diminishes my self-confidence.” Hatcher’s script makes clever use of Zoom conventions, with clues hidden in the characters’ backgrounds, for instance, and of mystery tropes (set on an isolated island where suspects get bumped off one by one, “Riddle” resembles Agatha Christie’s classic “And Then There Were None”).
It can’t be easy for actors to perform without partners or audiences to help them gauge the size of their performances, and some bits do register as bigger than the moment requires, but director Warren C. Bowles has them on the same page. And whether it’s editing or just good timing, the dialogue crackles with theatrical energy (the four episodes are prerecorded, but pre- and post-show segments are live).
It’s no substitute for live theater, but “Riddle” is an entertaining diversion with a bonus you don’t get with theater. Like everything else you do on your computer these days, you don’t even have to put your pants on for it.
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