Henniker’s Colby Hill Inn hosts weekend murder mystery event

Last modified: 6/11/2014 3:55:22 PM
Mr. Shade was sweating bullets.

It was the moment of truth. He had murdered his mother, Baroness Audry von Munchen, and he could tell Sue Bromley, the archaeologist, and Joan Dunn, the philanthropist, were on to him.

His schemes, lies and sins were about to catch up to him.

Or so he thought.

In the end, Shade got away scot-free. No one at the auction Saturday night at Henniker’s Colby Hill Inn could prove his guilt.

But rest easy, dear reader: The streets of Henniker are safe. Shade was just a character, played to taciturn perfection by Steve Durgin of Franklin, during a murder mystery performance weekend at the inn.

Durgin and his wife, along with her siblings and about 20 other Colby Hill guests, put aside their true identities for a weekend of pretend intrigue and fun.

The event proved to be a successful bet by inn owners Mason and Cyndi Cobb, who were looking to bridge the gap between ski season and summer. The Cobbs have owned the inn for 13 years and said they are always looking for something to bring in new guests during the time of year when it seems the Granite State has only mud to offer visitors.

“There’s just not a lot going on in early April in New Hampshire,” Cyndi Cobb said. “Skiing is done, but it’s not warm enough to do outdoor stuff yet, and it’s not the fall.”

They used to host weekends with different themes, such as “chocolate lovers,” which would draw crowds for a few years and then taper in popularity. This is the first time they’ve

brought in Pinnacle Performance Retreats, which is owned by husband and wife actors Jason Downs and Sophia Raab Downs of New York.

Every room in the inn booked within weeks of advertising the murder mystery event, but the real success was seeing all 26 guests mingling, needling each other for clues and acting out their own agendas.

“People really got engaged and took their parts to heart,” Mason Cobb said. “There’s a little bit of ham in all of us.”

Cobb got involved in the action, blacking his hair and slicking it back to play an international drug kingpin. He was so good at playing bad that at the end of the night, a whole table voted him most likely to have murdered the Baroness.

But everyone was a suspect: There was Jeeves the butler, of course, and his niece, trying to scheme their way into an inheritance. The eccentric anti-religion writer who happened to be a drug dealer. The deceased’s estranged secret husband, looking to get his piece of her estate. And Linda Lovelace, the penniless and very pregnant maid, carrying a rich man’s illegitimate child.

And that was just at one table.

“There were so many surprises through the whole weekend. There were husbands turning on wives, wives turning on husbands. Anything you thought you knew, someone would surprise you,” said Rick Wistler of Tilton, who played a corrupt cardinal.

“It was about stretching yourself beyond things you’d normally be comfortable with,” said Janice Ockerby of Natick, Mass., who played the astute archaeologist Sue Bromley.

She and her husband and six friends from the Boston area booked their weekend thinking it would be an entertaining show. They didn’t realize until two weeks ago, when their character assignments arrived in the mail, that they’d be the stars.

The tickets – starting at $499 per couple for the weekend – included accommodations at the inn for two nights, and wine and hors d’oeuvres Friday during ice-breaker games and basic instructions on improvisation acting from the Downses, and dinner Saturday during the “auction.”

It also meant that the rookie actors could turn to the professionals for advice all day Saturday as they got ready for the big night.

Jason Downs went to a local thrift shop with a few of the actors Saturday afternoon and helped them choose a few pieces to use as a costume, just things they wouldn’t normally wear to take them out of their usual frame of mind.

He and Sophia are both graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and started Pinnacle Performance Retreats after moving to upstate New York, out of hustle of the city and the revolving door of acting auditions.

No two performances have been the same, they said, as each group of new actors brings something new to the mystery weekend. Each character has an agenda, whether to keep or expose secrets, or blackmail and bribe his way into a fortune. Anything can happen as they team up, scheme and backstab.

This time, the Downses contended with a murderer so guileless, when he came upon a stolen brooch that belonged to the deceased, Durgin turned it in.

“I raised an eyebrow, I said, ‘Are you sure? No strings attached?’ ” Jason Downs said. “He came back to me later and said he realized he probably wasn’t supposed to do that, but there are no rules. There is no ‘supposed to.’ That’s the beauty of improv.”

The rest of the cast proved him right. Minutes after he announced the brooch had been discovered and returned, someone stole it off the auction block.

“This gives adults an opportunity to play,” he said, “to be silly, to do stuff they would never do otherwise. . . . What we really love about improv is the same thing people love about sports. Within this same frame, under the same rules, anything can happen and something different always happens.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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