It appeared that gone were the days of the good old “whodunits,” mysteries that seemed so obvious until that one last twist was revealed. Many remember watching amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher as she uncovered the murderer, the thief, or the cad on “Murder, She Wrote,” or Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling, self-defeating, yet endearing detective of The Pink Panther series. These campy mystery solvers mixed humor with wholesomeness to entertain and amuse, while also capturing the culprits.
The light-hearted approach to the murder mystery is a genre that Jane Brutto has brought to Columbia. The owner of JP Productions, LLC, Jane is an actor, singer, acting and vocal teacher and previous owner of a murder mystery company in Asheville, N.C., in the 1990s. Jane returned to Columbia many years ago and began to notice a demand for similar types of events in the Midlands. Businesses, hosts of private parties and even local restaurants were looking for opportunities to provide intriguing events for their guests. Enter Jane and the Capital City Killers, her acting troupe and cast of characters, that has been leading mystery dinners and events throughout Columbia for the past few years.
From the Southern Patriot on the lake and the WOW! New Year’s Eve Festival to a fabulous dinner at a local restaurant or even a retirement party, the Capital City Killers can be seen acting out mysteries for all to enjoy. And the coolest part is the opportunity for guests to be part of the show.
Jane writes all of the troupe’s scripts, ensuring a mystery customized to the event or the guest of honor. “We have a number of scripts I have created that people are free to choose from for their event,” says Jane. “I alter those scripts to fit their needs, or I can create a new one. I may have someone murdered or if it’s a kid-friendly event, I may have someone steal a turnip green casserole. We want to ensure the event fits the audience.”
Gone are the days of leisure when patrons would spend an entire evening at the theater. With a fast-paced modern environment and ensuing short attention spans, Jane is careful not to create an event that requires the audience’s undivided attention for an extended amount of time. Instead, she generally breaks the mystery into three short scenes. “I always say, we are here to garnish your event,” says Jane.
And with mysteries entitled “You Give Love a Dead Name,” “Murder through the Grapevine” and “Frankly, My Dear, I Didn’t Kill The Man,” it’s apparent that Jane has a knack for humor. Voted “Wittiest” in eighth grade, Jane has long been known as the funniest in any group, and she lets that talent shine through in her mysteries. “I think there is enough seriousness in the world,” says Jane. “I would rather enjoy an evening of laughter – however silly – than sit through a night of drama and seriousness.”
At any Capital City Killers mystery event, the cast mingles among the crowd in character, dropping hints and clues before the production starts. Then, when the first scene takes place, the victim is “bumped off” and the mystery begins. Throughout the play, cast members keep things interactive by engaging audience members, from having audience members play small parts to questioning the “suspects.” In the end, the Capital City Killers solve the mystery and expose the guilty party, but not before the audience writes down who they think is involved. It’s akin to a live version of the game Clue.
“We read what the audience members write and give rewards to whoever figures out ‘who did it,’ like little bottles of poison, actually bubbles, or detective badges. The adults and children love that,” Jane says.
The enjoyment and engagement is due in no small part to the aptitude of the actors in the Capital City Killers troupe. Jane doesn’t boast a large stage or elaborate costumes. Instead, she relies on props and great talent. “I have a group of big, energetic comedic actors who more than compensate for the lack of a grand stage or over-the-top costumes,” says Jane. “I would much rather have it this way, with great people who can engross an audience based on their acting skills alone.”
Jane has worked hard to compile an impressive group of professional actors who are adept at improvisation. “I emphasize to actors that they not only must have their lines and character breakdowns, but be very familiar with all other characters in the show,” she says. “They have to be keen with their improv skills and quick to ad-lib, while also easily adapting to the changing scenes.”
Jane has what she believes to be an enthusiastic group that has mastered the skills needed for a live, evolving mystery and is proficient in delivering strong character voices and different accents, allowing them to truly get into character. Members include Gina Calvert, George Dinsmore, Charlie Goodrich, Bill Roberson, Robin Saviola, Shelby Sessler and Lee O. Smith, among others, and they play an array of very interesting characters – from Helen Highwater and Polly Ester to Dilbert Pickles and Brock Lee. Productions have been compared to skits on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“People also see a lot of humor like in the ‘Naked Gun,’ ‘Police Squad’ and ‘Airplane’ movies in our shows,” adds Jane. These types of slapstick mysteries make audience members think and laugh. It’s stress relief at its best.
“Jane has pulled together some pretty good talent,” says Capital City Killers member Bill Roberson. “We have been together quite a while and are all experienced to some degree.” Bill believes the troupe’s success is due in large part to the strong, entertaining writing in Jane’s scripts. She can easily turn an innocent subject or event into a mystery.
“You would be surprised how easy it is to turn a lovely Thanksgiving dinner into a scandalous murder case,” jokes Bill. And while the stories aren’t serious enough to be scary, they do keep the audience guessing.
Jane considers it tongue-in-cheek entertainment. “You won’t find cursing or violence in our plays,” says Jane. And folks won’t walk away without having had a chuckle. To be sure, that’s why people love attending her shows.
“The most enjoyable aspect of Jane Brutto’s murder mysteries is the original writing,” says Patricia McCright, who has attended several of the shows. “Her original wit and humor make the mysteries unpredictable and entertaining. There is never a dull moment.”
“It’s great acting and it’s funny,” adds Paula Bregovi, a past audience member. And it’s a unique opportunity for attendees to pull out their inner private detective. Who knows, they may have a front row to “Murder at Fountain Manor: A Southern Fried Mystery.” Let’s just hope they aren’t the victim.
The Capital City Killers perform at all types of events and work closely with clients to deliver an unforgettable experience. Prices vary depending upon the event or the venue. Jane can be reached on Facebook at jbproductionsllc, via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (803) 606-6531.