Shakespeare, Sir Francis Drake, and Various Shenanigans: A Murder Mystery Party Report

July 1, 2009 at 8:04 pm 1 comment

I am currently participating in an AmeriCorps program, Literacy AmeriCorps Palm Beach County. We are here to solve the problem of low literacy in our community by serving as teachers, tutors, and mentors.  We also have a meeting or a teambuilding activity every Friday.  This past Friday, June 26, our teambuilding activity was a murder mystery party, the first I had ever been to.  We had the party at team member Nicole’s house (everyone I mention by name in this post is part of my team), but Lauren was the coordinator and host of the murder mystery.

The mystery we used was “Court in the Act,” from Freeform Games.  It’s set at the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, so it was perfect for us literature nerds. 😀 We’ve been a team since the end of last August, so by now, we all know each other really, really well.  As a result, Lauren’s casting of all of us in our particular roles was absolutely spot-on.  Ever since I suggested having a party to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day back in September, which we did, I’ve been known as the resident pirate fan, so it was only natural that I would be cast as the great explorer and privateer, Sir Francis Drake.  I was thrilled with this casting choice.  For the murder mystery party, I wore the same pirate costume I had worn for the Talk Like a Pirate Day party and for Halloween.  On all three of those occasions, dressing up in brown pants and shoes, a white button-down shirt with ruffles at the collar and sleeves, a dark red vest with gold buttons, and a brown tricorn with a white feather in it has helped me get into character.  (I actually didn’t have the hat for the TLAPD party; I got it the week before Halloween.)

A few other people had costumes, but since we’re on a limited budget, most people just wore their street clothes. The other outstanding costume of the night was Lisa’s Queen Elizabeth costume: a pouffy teal dress that came from a thrift store, decorated with gold ribbons and bows. Stephanie, playing Prince Philippe of France, had a white tunic, a red sash made of wrapping paper, and a mustache drawn on with eyebrow pencil.

The setup for the mystery can be found on the website. Basically, the people gathered at Queen Elizabeth’s court are all trying to figure out who killed the Archbishop of Canterbury, while trying to achieve their own individual goals, some of which are mutually exclusive.  One of the big tensions in the game is over which of the guests will get the privilege of making the Loyal Toast to Queen Elizabeth’s health; several characters, including mine, had obtaining that privilege as one of their goals.

Each of us started the game with two pages and several small cards’ worth of printed information about our characters, their goals, their secrets, and their abilities.  At first, I wasn’t sure what I was doing at all.  I was among my best friends, but since we were all playing characters, I was in a new situation, which made me shy about talking to anyone.  Thankfully, others approached me and talked to me first, drawing me into the game.  Once I got into it, it was an absolute blast.

During the first half of the game, I felt like there was an awful lot to learn and remember about everyone else’s characters; I didn’t synthesize and draw conclusions from the information I was hearing very well at all.  I just don’t have a lot of natural talent for following clues and solving mysteries.  It doesn’t help that I have absolutely no poker face, either.  Nonetheless, I came to understand how much fun these murder mystery games are, and I really started enjoying myself.  I loved playing Sir Francis Drake, because I not only got to brag about how much of the world I had explored, but I also got to wax nostalgic and emotional about how wonderful life on the sea was and how much I missed it.  This was easy for me to do because of my longtime immersion in music inspired by sailing and piracy.  I loved seeing how well my friends played their roles, too.  Matt R. was absolutely perfect as Doctor John Dee; he made up a long and gorgeous speech inviting Drake to come with him to Italy to partake in the Renaissance.  His acting and understanding of the character’s thoughts were amazing.  Alex’s ability to imitate accents made him perfect for the role of General FitzBacon, the commander of Irish mercenaries.  Cristina and Katie did very well as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (respectively), too.

I mentioned earlier that we were all a bunch of literature nerds.  When literature nerds play a game in which Shakespeare is one of the characters being played, it’s inevitable that people will make references to Shakespeare’s plays during the game.  There were at least three or four made over the course of the evening; the one I remember best was when Alex exclaimed, “Cry havoc!” and Kris and I finished, “And let slip the dogs of war!” in perfect unison with each other.

The Kris whom I mention is none other than Kris Kolish, whom my Deadpan Podcast friends know as the voice-acting understudy for Jeremy in my ongoing serialized audio story, “The Questors from Effpiem.”  Kris is one of the best actors in our Literacy AmeriCorps team, and both his acting and his strategy during the murder mystery were, in a word, ingenious.

SPOILER ALERT!: I’ve made some of the text below white, the same color as the page background, to conceal spoilers for the “Court in the Act” murder mystery game. If this game sounds like fun, I highly encourage you to buy it, get some friends together, and play through it. (Be advised, though, that the host of the party knows all the secrets from the very beginning.) If you want to read the spoilers, though, just highlight the text.

I failed to achieve my (Drake’s) goal of making the Loyal Toast, because I was out on the back patio talking to Lord Essex and I missed the toast itself.  However, I made it back into the house for the important announcements that were made after the toast.  One of these was made by Kris’s character, Juan Futin da Greve, Ambassador of the King of Spain.  He announced that the Spanish Armada was on its way to attack England, and that it was being commanded by… Sir Francis Drake.

This was the climax of the experience for me.  I was utterly shocked – not a single character had mentioned this to me, and it hadn’t been on my character sheet, so I was completely caught off guard and floored by the announcement – and yet I was laughing hysterically, because I was enjoying the drama of the moment so much.  All the other English characters were expressing the fury and contempt they had toward me for betraying my country, and up until that moment, I had had no idea that I was leading the Armada!  It was so absurd!  I loved it so much.

I spent the rest of the game insisting to everyone that I was not leading the Spanish Armada and trying to muster as much naval aid for England as I could. It worked; England defeated the Spanish in the end.  After the murder mystery was over, Kris let me in on another secret: preventing Sir Francis Drake from leading the Spanish Armada had been one of his character’s goals all along. He’d tricked everyone at the party, in an epically dramatic fashion, and had achieved one of his goals. So. Much. Awesome.

Since our team has many more women on it than men, and the murder mystery had more male characters than female, we had a lot of women playing male characters.  At some point during the game, somebody, speaking in character, called me “androgynous,” which puzzled me.  At the end of the game, the host revealed who the murderer had been, and had some of the characters, though not all of them, share what their big secrets had been.  The fact that I had been called “androgynous” proved to be rather ironic when it was revealed that two of the male characters in the mystery had the same secret: they were actually female relatives of the men in question who had secretly taken their places. Neither of those two characters were the one I was playing. I still don’t know why anyone would call me “androgynous,” though.

I love this group of friends so much.  They really made our murder mystery something special.  In fact, we all had so much fun that I’m thinking of hosting another, less ambitious murder mystery sometime this month… but that’ll be a story for another day.

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The Questors From Effpiem, Episode 6: The Pantomime Play The Questors from Effpiem, Episode 7: The Home for Infinite Winners

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