The original dinner play production of 'FRAMED' Murder Is Art opened to an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 128 at Hempstead Hall on Thursday, and completed its two-night run on Friday prior to inclement weather later that night
The original dinner play production of 'FRAMED' Murder Is Art opened to an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 128 at Hempstead Hall on Thursday, and completed its two-night run on Friday despite inclement weather.
The two-hour production, presented in two acts with a 20-minute serving intermission, featured an all-star local cast of familiar faces teamed with UA student newcomer Mario Valdez in a storyline bringing two crimes together in a series of secrets and revelations with a comedic edge.
“Being a part of four different community theaters over the years, this was unusual and unique in that you had a local cast, local director, and locally written production; it was an excellent performance that was well-directed and well-written,” Southwest Arts Council Director George Smith said afterwards.
Directed by John Gladden, and written by John Hollis, both of the University of Arkansas at Hope, the dinner play brought many of the same qualities, quirks and audience participation as a similar production two years ago, also written by Hollis called "Til Death Us Do Part” in 2016.
With an art gallery setup among dinner tables in Hempstead Hall, the opening act of the play initially focused on what was believed to be a “stolen centerpiece of art,” a painting by “john jaspers” (played by Matt Dickerson) and investigated by a determined detective named Marloe Phillips (Valdez) as well as a pesky reporter named Ida Tarbell (played by Lisa Rhodes.)
The audience is first led to a cast of other artists, who may — or may not — have sabotaged the art gallery, including fellow artists Manet Edwards (Jane Purtle) and Stella Frank (Kathleen Hignight) as well as bizarre identical twin brothers, Wyeth and Warhol Andrews (both played by Brad Parker).
There were also mysterious art gallery benefactors Caesar Borja (played by Jerry Pruden) and his wife Lucrezia Borja (played by Pruden’s real-life wife, Twyla) and the secret-keeping assistant, Dolly Salvador (Amanda Lance).
The female artists, Manet and Stella, are somewhat rivals in both painting and extracurricular pursuits; the hipster “jasper” is so cool that he insists that his name is all lower cased; the brothers, Wyeth and Warhol, are interchangeable. Wyeth is also a “featured artist,” while Warhol is the art gallery director.
Stella, who was also revealed as a “fashion designer,” proves equally sharp with her tongue as well as a paint brush, and she was initially accused of “painting over the stolen painting” when Detective Phillips reveals the “stolen painting wasn’t really stolen at all.”
From there, Stella claimed that Wyeth gave her “the canvas,” but then, Wyeth said that Manet, in turn, gave him “the canvas,” but the secretive Dolly is found to have possessed the canvas, too. Dolly is then accused of taking the canvas for “publicity purposes.”
As Phillips has apparently “solved” the stolen art crime, Warhol is discovered elsewhere in the gallery office dead, apparently strangled by a “designer scarf,” which immediately refocuses attention on Stella.
The first half of the play ends there with the audience eating dinner and left to ponder a whole new crime, a murder mystery.
The second half of the play commences with Phillips investigating the murder of Warhol Andrews, and the characters then traded jabs, motives, and accusations of murder against each other as the audience attempts to sort it all out.
Reporter Tarbell reveals the shady investments and possible “mob connections” of Ceasar, while Dolly — already in trouble for the painting switch — is accused of a greater cover-up.
The big cover-up ultimately revealed was that Warhol the art director was really the artist of works produced by Wyeth, and the audience learns that “Being twins is like a marriage; you are always linked together and there is always a measuring stick between us. Only with twins, there is no divorce.”
The two-hour running time featured breakout performances by Valdez as the dogged Detective Phillips, the youngest cast member who is a graduating senior this year at UA-Hope, and looks to major in performing arts as he transfers to a four-year college, and Hignight, who brought bite to the sharp and witty remarks of Stella.
Afterwards, Valdez said “I was very excited and very nervous. It was a lot of memorizing as I was told I was going to be in about 95-percent of the performance, but I like challenge, and it was a challenge.”
“I was very comfortable as we all got into character, and it was very interesting to get a feel of what a live crowd was like. It is different being on a stage and a room full of table,” he said.
Valdez said he was encouraged to try out for the play for experience as he moves on to a Performing Arts major.
For Gladden, it was a first time experience as a director.
“For me, I’ve performed in plenty of stage plays and musicals in the past. With this being the first time I’ve directed something, it certainly brought back all those old feelings of butterflies and excitement,” he said.
“I paced a lot, but overall, I was real happy with the way the play unfolded. We started in February with tryouts and rehearsals, and we slowly moved on in developing the production,” Gladden said.
As for Valdez, the youngest performer who basically anchored the show, Gladden said “Every one starts somewhere. Mario was a dream to work with; he really took to the role. With a young artist, there is always teaching and challenges, but he really just jumped it and made it his own.”
“His character, Phillips, was basically the audience’s viewpoint through all this. We follow him on this path with the other characters as he tries to figure out what is going on. He is also a very ‘real character’ in the sea of eccentric artists, fringe personalities, and outrageous celebrities. Mario portrayed that very well. He was the calm in the artistic storm, so to say.”
Gladden called “Stella,” as portrayed by Kathleen Hignight, an interesting character.
“Stella is flirtatious; she is combative. She is combative and insulting to the other artists, and to have Kathleen portray that is such a departure from her reputation in the real world and really got a strong reaction.”
Gladden also said that nothing was substantially different between Thursday’s and Friday’s performances, so it was basically the same show twice.
“You go through the weeks of rehearsals and preparations ahead of time, and you really don’t want to confuse the actors or change something like cue lines, which are important. After the first performance, unless there is something really glaring, you don’t really change anything from show to show,” he said.