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Murder in Brooten ... pretty sweet over dessert

Somehow, witnessing a murder while eating cheesecake just doesn't make the crime seem so bad.

To be honest, it's actually pretty funny.

And when the only possible suspects start pointing their fingers at YOU as the murderous villain, it's downright hilarious.

Such is the fortune of being in the audience during the live dinner theater show, "B-I-N-G-O Spells Murder," which opens tonight at John O's in Brooten.

The interactive murder mystery comedy includes an elegant dinner and a stage performance presented in the uniquely designed and decorated John O's, which is made to look like New Orleans' French Quarter (prior to Katrina).

Before and during segments of the play, actors glide through the dining room at John O's, in full costume and character, making general inquiries about the whereabouts of so-and-so and what-the-devil YOU think has happened to the money that was supposed to pay off the mortgage for the church and the "Lady of Almost Lost Causes" orphanage.

Audience members are given a BINGO card for a game that's part of the show, and a name card with an identity and an unusual characteristic that can be employed during the course of the evening among fellow diners, if desired. For those who are too shy to be dramatic while eating and watching the show, there is nothing wrong with just eating and watching the show.

In the end, the audience is asked to help Father Patrick O'Sullivan decide who the murderer is, how it was done and the motive.

It's kind of like a grown-up version of the board game, "Clue." (Miss Scarlet, with the candlestick, in the billiard room.)

Despite the cherubic faces glowing with innocence on the stage, the West Central Tribune reporter and photographer who got a sneak-peak at the performance last week, nailed the guilty party, but failed miserably on the means and motive segment.

Without giving away the answer to who the killer is, it's all about the numbers and the letters. You're playing BINGO, after all.

The play is written by Robert Mattson, and directed by Thomas Rosengren, a native of Belgrade who's been in a number of plays at The Barn Theatre in Willmar and will be directing The Barn's spring production of "Sylvia."

Doing an interactive murder mystery is different than any other kind of theater because audience input can vary from night to night, said Rosengren. The actors try to anticipate responses from the audience and are ready to fill in with ad lib lines.

The combination of good food and a well-done play is something that is usually only available in the metro area. "People drive all the way to Chanhassen for shows like this," said Rosengren.

Providing food and entertainment in the charming atmosphere of John O's, which had been the small town's theater years ago, is the perfect combination, he said. John O's Dinner Theatre opened in 2006 and has featured many weekend performances provided by professional performers that were brought in to town.

Rosengren, who is currently the advertising and marketing director at John O's, wanted to use the restaurants stage and venue for putting on community theater and presented a 35-page proposal for the plan.

Another play called "Just Desserts," will be held in March and two musicals are planned for the summer.

Auditions for future performances will be open to all area actors, but Rosengren said he wanted to keep the cast of the first show local folks. Because of the extensive experience of local talent, putting together a good cast was easy, he said.

Most members of the cast either grew up or currently live in the Brooten and Belgrade area. They come with an impressive set of theater credentials and their bios printed in the playbill could surprise some.

Bill Lee, of Starbuck, is the manager of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson. He has a long history of music performances and stage acting, plays a mob gangster named Joey Verricione, with a perfect Bronx accent that must've been a little challenging for a native Tennessean living in Minnesota.

During confession to Father O'Sullivan, Joey provides a long litany: "I killed. Talked back to my mother. Killed. Ate meat on Friday. Killed. Took the Lord's name in vain. Oh, yeah. I killed."

Wanda Lee, of Starbuck, is a retired teacher who has a degree in drama and broad experiences on the stage. She plays the wealthy Bunny DeVaine, who is very vain about her eccentric appearance, lavish lifestyle and desire to get what she wants. She has plans to build a lake where the church cemetery is once she gets the deed to the property.

Bunny also uses her ability to browbeat her wimpy husband, Claude Chandam, played by Jack Kuppich, who's slight frame is nearly pulled to pieces as Bunny and Joey tug him in opposite directions to be either a man who stands up for himself or one who does what his wife says.

"You're not a man, you're my husband," shouts Bunny.

"What's Monday night football?" Claude asks Joey, as he slowly realizes what he's been missing.

Kuppich has performed on stage in Detroit Lakes and volunteers at The Barn Theatre.

David Swinney, who is the real-life pastor at the Brooten Community Church, plays the good-hearted Father O'Sullivan with a very convincing Irish brogue.

A line in the play that more than implies there are more people in the audience for the play than in church on Sunday generates a personal wince from Swinney.

His wife, Lynda Swinney, plays the teenage, love-struck and dim-witted Jennifer Boyleston. Her theater experience includes directing plays at the Brooten-Belgrade-Elrosa High School and performing at The Barn Theatre in Willmar.

Larry Syverson, who plays Greg Arlington, the forgetful teen who's looking for money so he can marry his sweetheart, is also a veteran of the stage and has directed a one-act play for Willmar Public Schools.

Pauline Segaar, a member and actor with the Bonanza Valley Production Company since 1983, plays the annoying bean-counter Judy Tremont. She loves her adding machine.

Having Segaar in the play was especially meaningful to Rosengren, who was a high school actor at BBE under Segaar's direction.

"I get to kill her off in this play," said Rosengren with a smile.

Opps! Did we say too much?

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750