Smile Politely

Twin City Theater Company brings a student-written mystery to Parkland College Theater 

three cast members sit on a couch with five standing behind the couch. They are deep in discussion. The backdrop is black.
Twin City Theatre Company

The Curious Case of Covingston Manor is a manor house mystery with all of the classic tropes and accoutrements: an old mansion with a vaguely aristocratic name, a wealthy (and possibly stingy) elder relative whose death sparks the entire story, a supporting cast of mixed family members and household servants who all have something to hide, a will that was possibly changed at the (literal!) eleventh hour, a dramatically-uncovered murder weapon, and a pair of detectives from the local law enforcement who are trying to sort the whole mess out. Though this production owes as much to the recent popularity of Knives Out as it does to Gosford Park, And Then There Were None, Penhallow, and even Clue — and we’d all be disappointed if it didn’t pay homage to any and all of these — Covingston Manor isn’t only re-hashing old tropes. As with all good mysteries, there are twists that nobody sees coming. 

Covingston Manor is the 2023 Twin Cities’ “Stars of Tomorrow” student production. The series allows for theater students to work at all stages of the process of producing a play. Each show is cast, staffed, and produced entirely by students from the Central Illinois area. In this case, the show is also written by a student. Writer & Director Mia-Belle Shannon wrote Covingston Manor, her first-ever play, as a junior in high school, and believed that it would be consigned to a desk drawer and eventually a recycling bin. It’s a very good first play, and has since enjoyed the benefits of her experience studying and producing theater. A good Producer/Stage Manager is also invaluable, and Chandra Galloway very clearly understood Shannon’s vision for the show. 

One thing that I particularly appreciate about Covingston Manor is that it looks away from some tropes of murder-mystery gendering: men having threatening conversations behind semi-closed doors, scorned women poisoning ex-lovers, etc. The all-women detective team helps. There are little details, like calmly reassuring the suspect that they have to ask routine questions of everyone before they show anxiety and suspicion, that land differently than when they’re spoken by male detectives or gentleman-sleuths. While the detective team loosely maintains the hierarchy of senior/junior officers that most regular followers of mysteries will recognize, it doesn’t follow the unflappable senior/green junior detective dynamic. I appreciated this even more when, about thirty minutes in, the show takes a turn for the Midsomer Murders (ITV) and goes from investigating one murder to two, and eventually three. The show is willing to rely on classic machinery when appropriate. Revenge appears as a motivation in the midst of fraught family drama, lending a Shakespearean air to the proceedings. I’m not going to give the final twist away, but the revenge that motivates the murderer isn’t any of the ones that seem obvious. 

The thing that warms my heart so much about this production is that it’s a student project, from beginning to end, and collectively they have clearly invested so much creative energy into it. It’s also a great show to do for a student production because there are lots of classic production problems to solve: how to show time passing and flashback sequences without breaking up the flow of the story, how to give the sense of a large mansion inside a black box theater (a problem that Knives Out certainly didn’t have to deal with), and how to keep the characters and their changing motivations straight. Full disclosure: I’m a long-time practitioner of performing arts. I want to see/hear young artists figure out their craft(s). It’s how I reassure myself that the kids are all right. The Covingston Manor cast and staff are doing just that.

If I have any critique of the play itself, it’s that it’s too short — the opening curtain went up at 7 p.m., and the audience was filing out by 8:15 p.m. There’s enough twists and turns to make this a two-hour show by adding a few scenes that flesh out the details we learn via cross-examination, and the audience would definitely stick around for it. The production is well done from lines to effects, and the cast carries off the plot marvelously, keeping the final reveal completely secret until the final minutes.   

The Curious Case of Covingston Manor
Parkland College Theater
2400 W Bradley Ave
June 23-25
F-Sa 7 p.m.
Su 2 p.m.

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