The situation looks grim: Our hero and his trusty sidekick are caught, tied to chairs. The villain cackles over them. How will they get free — and how did they get into this mess?
The detective stares straight at the audience.
"It's too bad our investigation was curtailed by somebody's POOR CHOICES!"
Oh, right. We put them there.
Mercury Players Theatre kicks off a typically dark season with an atypically light-hearted comedy written by Rick Stemm, a frequent fight choreographer, and Christian Neuhaus, an arts writer for Dane101.com. The coworkers (both work at Epic Systems) wrote their first choose-your-own-adventure, Sherlock Holmes-style comedy for the 24-hour play competition Blitz Smackdown! in 2009.
This newly elongated version immediately impugns our inadequacy for the task at hand. "You've Ruined A Perfectly Good Mystery! A Choose Your Own Adventure Theatrical Tale" runs in various audience-led permutations through Saturday, Sept. 25 at Mercury Players' alternative space, the Merc Lab, on Fair Oaks Avenue.
I'm not going to pretend the plot makes any sense at all. It's something about gentlemen's clubs (one of which looks like it was lifted straight from Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret"). Wealthy men switch from one to another, disappear for a few days and return catatonic and without any money. Or something. Sherlock — er, the nameless detective — is on the case.
Christopher Younggren plays the irritable detective doppelganger with a self-satisfied smirk and a quick temper. He errs most of the time on the amusing side of pissed off, aided by a silly Matthew A. Schrader as his earnest assistant (renamed "Dr. Mercutio Falconer").
But it's the narrator, played by Jamie England, who makes the show. She starts high strung and stammering, then takes control, shouting out adverbs after key lines like a Victorian Tom Swifty. As the detective rolls his eyes, England physically blocks scenes to ask us, the audience, whether the cast should go to Ireland or France, this club or that one.
Director Sam White loves sight gags, most of which are provided by the plucky ensemble. They are the set, playing doors, coat racks, spiral staircases and scenery. Veronica Raulin and Daniel Torres-Rangel are especially good — the latter grins even when holding a cloud and pacing across the stage.
The costumes, designed by Sydney Krieger, are impressive, like the cast raided the closet of a steampunk hipster. Lots of aviator glasses, Matt Korda's fabulous high boots and Torres-Rangel's French ensemble, complete with beret and scarf, make up for Karen Saari's lopsided lingerie (could no one find her a skirt?).
Several fight scenes are fun to watch — including a flamboyant, mimed exchange of insults — though they tend to go on too long. Still, it's amusing to yell and be yelled at, reamed for bad choices and praised by cast members when we choose "correctly." It's like "The 39 Steps," but with more confusion and more noise.
Will the villain win? Will the British government become overrun by automatons or manipulated by mind control?
Only you can decide.