It’s theatre, comedy, improv, cinematic effects, gourmet dining, and interactive crime solving, all rolled into one. If you’ve already guessed it, you know I’m talking about Ottawa’s Eddie May Mysteries – a completely unique and well-rounded experience for those seeking a highly entertaining, yet slightly off-the-beaten-path night out on the town. This is the story of how something that was only thought to last one summer turned into a company that has been around for 33 years and is still going strong.
The original idea has been accredited to an English businesswoman by the name of Joy Swift, who invented murder mystery dinner theatre in 1981. It didn’t take long for its popularity to reach across the globe, and just a few years later, a budding Ottawa businessman by the name of Mark Monahan ran with the idea, and Eddie May Mysteries was born. With the help of actor Nick Stelmach, Monahan put together a troupe who performed their first show at Strathmere House in 1984. Skilled actors and improv gurus Noel Counsil and Johnson Moretti would join forces a few years later to help shape the scripts and performances. Monahan dropped out of active participation in 1991 when he began concentrating effort on what would become Ottawa Bluesfest. The reins were handed over to Noel and Johnson, and after Johnson’s passing in 1997, Noel and his wife Sharon bought the company and have operated Eddie May ever since.
In the early days, shows were held at what was once the MacDonald Club on Maclaren St., then moved to The Marble Works (now Lunenburg Pub) on Waller St. for the next 18 years until that venue shut down. For the past 13 years, their steady weekend performances have continued at The Velvet Room, located above Fat Tuesday’s on York St., and at a second Velvet Room location in Kanata. They are the only theatre company that runs all year round and Eddie May is the longest running producer of murder mystery dinner theatre in North America. Aside from their public shows, they take bookings as a mobile outfit for private functions of all kinds.
Noel’s son, Zach Counsil, grew up surrounded by his father’s company and avidly learned the ropes growing up. He has now acted in as well as written, produced, and directed several productions, including their latest effort, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlepeople.” Zach spoke to Apt613 about the company’s evolution:
“I remember shows when I was a kid which were very heavy on the improvisational side, so the scripts were lighter to allow for more play with the audience. It was basically a few pages outlining a general storyline and characters. Things like, okay you go here, he does this, you grab a gun, he grabs a knife, she kills that person, etc. and that was it. The actors would just go out there and improv their way through it to build a 3-hour show, and set up the case so that the audience could solve the crime.
“When the shows were done at Marble Works, it was more of a multi-level thing. The first quarter of the show was staged in Alfie’s bar downstairs, where the audience and actors in character would mingle. Then they’d move everybody upstairs into the main dining hall for the murders and ensuing investigations. Also back in those days, there were shows they did at Strathmere House that were staged over the course of an entire weekend. Over the years they’ve done shows on trains, boats, rotating restaurants, you name it.”
Eddie May has also branched out with franchises in New Orleans, Portland, and Charlottetown, of which most are owned by former actors from the Ottawa company. Zach goes on to tell me how the shows themselves have morphed into more scripted productions:
“Over time, it has become more theatre-oriented, where we moved into a space with production equipment, larger lighting grids, and brought in more actors rather than comedians.”
From spoofy names like “Game Of Bones,” “Dead Duck Dynasty,” and “Southern Discomfort,” musical offshoots like “Chicago,” to iconic Sherlock Holmes whodunnits, Eddie May offer an array of themed shows that run seasonally and sometimes longer, depending on the public demand.
“We’ve for the most part taken on themes that are popular at the time. Like when a blockbuster comes out, whether it’s a musical, a movie, or a TV series. If there’s a feasible way to work it into a murder mystery with an interactive setting, then they’ll take it on. For example, the one we did based on Game Of Thrones was a huge event. The show was sold out for 9 months straight and ran for over a year with four extensions. People couldn’t get enough. Then last year, we changed it up with an iconic Sherlock Holmes mystery with period décor throughout the venue to look like you were on the streets of London in the 1890s.”
Their newest instalment opened on January 28 and will run until Spring 2017. “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlepeople” is a spin off of the best-selling book and movie, “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”
I attended opening night to catch my first taste of the experience. The moment I walked into the Velvet Room, I could identify with the aptly named atmosphere… the high ceilings, glittering chandeliers, and of course, plush red velvet drapes and upholstered booths. Once seated, I glanced around to see couples, groups of friends, and families in attendance. A 3-course meal with your entrée choice of fish, chicken, or beef tenderloin (medium rare and delicious!) was ordered before the show began. When the lights went down, and the spotlights spilled onto the wide stage area, you felt you were right in the middle of a movie set. Cinematic music and narration at once pulled the crowd into the storyline, as we were introduced to the League of Gentlepeople – the would-be conquerors of evil in our fair city – along with the Crime Minister.
There were well-written scenes, including plenty of comedic lines, video narration, great costumes, wonderful acting, and an easy to follow story that brought Ottawa into its geography…even the infamous Rideau Street sinkhole found its way into the script.
After initial storyline development, the room went black and the first murder was committed. The characters then broke from the scene and they circulated amongst the tables and mingled with the audience. At that point the delivery of the meal began and was well-timed throughout the rest of the evening, along with two 5-minute intermissions. As the night progressed, it had us chanting mantras, laughing uncontrollably, describing our own superpowers, and getting up out of our seats to investigate the evidence. At the end, a grand prize winner was chosen from those who guessed the correct killer, and a well-satiated evening of food and entertainment of roughly two and a half hours came to a close. I was truly amazed by the attention to every little detail of the production, the elegant surroundings, the superb meal, and to the level of service that was attentive, yet smooth and non-interruptive during the performance. It was just as Zach had described it – more than a show, it was an experience… one that everyone needs to try at least once.