Hey buddy, got a line?

Shootin’ Starz Stage Co. presents a hilariously bad murder mystery

The Shootin’ Starz Stage Co. in last year’s production of <i>Tell It Ta Finney</i>.

The Shootin’ Starz Stage Co. in last year’s production of Tell It Ta Finney.

Rated 3.0

I’ve taken to seeing plays on Sundays recently to prevent my job from interfering with my hectic weekend social life. (Hey, video games don’t just play themselves!) On further reflection, I may have to re-think this strategy, because when there are only three people in the audience on a Sunday night, I may be blowing my cover as a theater reviewer.

Yeah, call me paranoid, but at one point during the Shootin’ Starz Stage Co.'s production of A Mine Shaft is a Deep Subject, or A Hole in the Ground, I actually turned to my companion and whispered, “Are they screwing with me?” Chances are good that I’m just a paranoid freak, and the Shootin’ Starz Stage Co. was screwing with everyone that evening, including the young couple that showed up halfway through the first act, making a grand total of five people.

But looking back on the experience, I’m glad that there were so few of us in Virginia City’s outdoor amphitheater that evening, because the cast members seemed to just let themselves go and have a ball. Or they were pounding shots of Jägermeister backstage. Or both.

First, forget the main title of the play. It’s funny, but it has nothing to do with the plot. As author and director Mike Roberts explains in the program, the play started out as a re-write of one of his old murder-mystery dinner theater scripts. Somewhere along the way, mine shafts went bye-bye.

But you’ve still got a hole in the ground—in the form of a well—where the play’s first dead guy is found. Saloon girl Virginia City Kitty (Mandy Pritchard) and new schoolmarm Penny Plum (Jessica Lynn Rosen) commence screaming, and Sheriff Whit Patten (Roy Smith) emerges from the outhouse to figure out what all the ruckus is about. Mike Roberts joins the commotion as Pancho Rancho, embodying every Speedy Gonzales cartoon I ever saw.

At some point, actor Phil Harriman appears as … drum roll, please … Captain Crunch. Seriously, folks. The Cap’n rumbles about the amphitheater shouting “arrrrrgh!” every other word. Meanwhile, Sister Mary Contrary (Gena Roberts) pops in and out occasionally, adding a bit of Irish brogue to the already wacky range of accents. And just for kicks, they throw in a long-winded parrot named Crusty.

So there are all these crazy characters running around, and the funniest thing about it is that everyone is forgetting their lines, or talking over each other, or making stuff up as they go along. I have a hunch that some of them were intentionally trying to crack each other up, but the mistakes were generally funnier than the deliberate jokes. (At some point, Captain Crunch let out an emphatic “Shiver me Tiggers!” and everyone just lost it for a second.)

I have no idea what the Shootin’ Starz cast is like when they’re playing to a packed house, but for our lonely little performance, at least, they had a blast, as did I. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt, despite the fact that in any other medium, this play would be considered a disaster.