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The Arcane Mysteries of Vanderslice Manor, a two-act play written by actors Noah Levine and Adam Cooper, opens in the drawing room of Vanderslice Manor. There, detective Basil Shakingstoke (Levine) fixes his eyes on the audience and pronounces a brilliant deduction: he knows who, among those gathered, is responsible for the murder of Martin Vanderslice III.
Shakingstoke has all of Sherlock’s smugness, Poirot’s pomposity, and Monk’s neurotic maladjustment. Amusement ensues as the detective succumbs to these flaws and begins to reflect obsessively on his estranged relationship with former roommate/“protegé” Taylor.
The play’s second act, “The Unconventional Séance of Martin Vanderslice III,” is delivered by Thomas Vanderslice (Cooper), the callow, resentful son of the deceased. He has “invited the audience here this evening” to call forth the spirit of his dead father. Martin’s spirit doesn’t respond, yet there does seem to be a presence in the room...
A captive, sometimes-willing audience
On their own, the extensive monologues can’t build any tension leading up to the show's final, spooky plot twist. Fortunately, however, Arcane Mysteries contains a hybrid of scripted and improvised material.
This combination creates a complicity between audience and cast that helps overcome the characters’ alienated self-indulgence. Audience members are seated with placards bearing the names of Vanderslice family members and other potential suspects, with several invited (or coerced) onstage.
This staging brings a mixed blessing for Arcane Mysteries. At various points throughout the play, the stage-sitters get roped into responding to Shakingstoke’s rhetorical questions or Thomas Vanderslice’s directives. Some responses are better than others, and during Shakingstoke’s and Thomas Vanderslice’s longer digressive stretches it is all too easy to read the disengagement on the participants’ faces.
For better or worse, the play does not rely too much on audience participation, and the speed with which Levine and Cooper deliver their lines spirits the narrative through its lagging moments. Although this pace occasionally renders the storyline hard to keep up with, the banter ultimately carries the piece and manages to convey both the charm of Shakingstoke’s affect and Thomas Vanderslice’s morbid, manic charisma.
What, When, Where
The Arcane Mysteries of Vanderslice Manor. By Noah Levine and Adam Cooper, Lesley Berkowitz directed. Philly Improv Theater. Through September 15, 2018, at Philly Improv Theater Second Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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