Dinner theater troupe gets supernatural

'Murder at Madam Conundrum's' invites audience into psychic's parlor

When preparing for opening night of a play, it's not normal -- in fact it's paranormal -- for the cast to participate in a seance.

But that's exactly what members of the Leavenworth Players Group did last week to get ready for "Murder at Madam Conundrum's or Ghost Who's Coming to Dinner," which they'll perform Saturday and Oct. 24 at the Hereford House in Lawrence.

They called it a "group empowerment session."

"It was very enlightening," says Leavenworth paralegal Gregory Marino, who wrote the play and is director of the group. "We definitely had some interesting experiences. There were some interesting energy patterns in the room."

He's hoping that energy will carry over into the troupe's Lawrence presentation of the interactive dinner theater murder mystery/comedy. The show tells the story of a seance that goes awry. Madam Conundrum, a psychic, invites her friends (and the audience) into her parlor of spiritual enlightenment for her annual seance and supper.

"But before the seance can get rocking, Madam Conundrum isn't rocking anymore," Marino says.

Not coincidentally, police detective Frank Wolf is in the parlor at the time of Conundrum's murder and has a personal interest in solving this and a related case.

Also present at the seance are: Newton Covington (played by Marino), an eminent and wealthy herpetologist and businessman; his wife, Carolyn Covington; Carol Ann Babson, Conundrum's trusted (but not trustworthy) and ambitious assistant; and Frank Stockton, Conundrum's business adviser, attorney and romantic interest.

The actors playing these roles are from Leavenworth, Kansas City and Topeka.

The same desire for authenticity that inspired Marino to take these cast members to a seance also led him to conduct research on spiritualism, the belief system that drives Conundrum's psychic work.

"Basically, spiritualism is the belief that a human is made up of a body, a soul and spirit, and after you die then the soul lives on infinitely," Marino says. "Spiritualists believe spirits can be summoned, that they're all around us."

After the initial shock of Conundrum's murder, her guests continue with the seance, eventually rousing a spirit.

"There's a lot of spectacle to this, a lot of special effects," Marino says. "It's spooky, but it's still suitable for the family."

The audience is invited to participate in the investigation by asking questions and then filling out solution ballots. A name will be drawn randomly from among the people who solve the mystery, and the winner will win two free tickets to the troupe's next show.

As is par for the course in dinner theater, Marino and the other cast members double as servers during the show, which takes place as patrons enjoy a multicourse meal featuring their choice of Kansas City strip steak, chicken parmigiana or grilled mahimahi.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," Marino says. "It's very much comedic, with jokes, puns and eccentric people doing funny things."

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