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Mystery, Murdered 

The enigma of theatrical clumsiness is on display at Karamu.

We all love a good mystery, because our lives are, essentially, nothing more than a series of daily mysteries. For instance, a current puzzler is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent statement that the chaotic looting throughout Iraq was understandable, since that country is now free and "freedom means people are able to commit mistakes . . . commit crimes." For those of you who have not yet acquired a Bush administration-to-English dictionary: Poor people robbing other poor people is "freedom," poor people robbing the rich is a "capital felony," and the rich robbing the poor (Hello, massive tax cut for the upper 1 percent in income!) is "democracy."

But we digress. Many of us like nothing better than an intricate murder mystery, which is, no doubt, why Karamu House decided to mount Murder Once Removed, by Irving Gaynor Neiman. The play concerns a small-town doctor who has a habit of killing his relatives and patients, when the financial situation or whim is right. A suspicious patient named Walter Manning gets too inquisitive, so the doc does cranial surgery on him with a fireplace poker and then sets up another patient as the suspected murderer. There are indeed many perplexities afoot in this production, but none that arises directly out of the credibility-challenged plot.

The first mystery is whether there is still time to stop payment on the check that Karamu cut for director Donald A. Squires. It would be inaccurate to say that Squires phoned in his direction of this inept enterprise, since that would imply that some communication had actually occurred between him and his cast. In fact, there is no such evidence, since all seven cast members appear woefully underrehearsed and unsure of themselves.

A second baffler is why performers, experienced or not, would hit the stage without a firm grasp of their lines. Almost every cast member in Removed fumbled lines repeatedly, with James Savage Jr. (playing Doctor Cato) stubbing his toe on the name of his nurse virtually every time he said it. Even when battling poor direction, actors should be able to deliver their lines without stopping or backtracking.

Then, of course, there is the overarching imponderable of why this hamhanded script was selected, since it features a supernaturally gifted death-sensing dog and inexplicable interchanges, such as this one between the doctor and his police-sergeant friend. Doc: "Manning thinks I'm as likely to kill him as to cure him." Cop: "Why does he keep coming to see you?" Doc: "He has confidence in me." At another time, the doctor is vexed by the complexities of modern medicine, bemoaning the fact that it's hard to know whether to prescribe Bufferin or aspirin. Huh? Indeed, this production is only a hair's breadth away from becoming an unwitting parody of a murder mystery. If only.

On the positive side, the set design by John Konopka is dandy, and there's some cool jazz between the scenes. Besides, if you don't think about what the title means, the ending might surprise you.

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