A stalwart of Edwardian architecture, Victoria’s Fairmont Empress Hotel, better known as The Empress, has a long, colourful history in B.C.’s capital city of Victoria.
Not only have dignitaries such as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II stayed there, along with a long list of celebrities who have noshed on scones and sipped Murchie’s tea in the famed dining room, there are also some murders, and mysteries, that surround the hotel.
The Empress’ famed architect, Francis Rattenbury, came to an unseemly end when he was killed by his lover’s husband, who whacked him on the head with a carpenter’s mallet.
The hotel is even rumoured to have a few ghosts: One is said to be chambermaid Lizzie McGrath, who plunged six storeys to her death in 1909. Then there’s the spirit of a dead man who is said to be buried in the hotel’s now cemented-in underground tunnel, and the old woman who haunts the sixth floor, asking for help in finding her room.
There was also the mysterious, wealthy eccentric who lived in the hotel’s entire upper floor that was closed to the public in 1978.
Her story is about to be told when Murder at the Empress?, a fictional play that is a theatrical look inside the murder mystery genre, is staged by the Tragically Comic Players at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Saturday, Nov. 5.
“In truth, there was a millionaire heiress living on that floor at the time, but that is where the reality ends and the illusion begins in Murder at the Empress?,” said local playwright/director Phil Wagner, who wrote the play in 1978.
It was performed professionally in Victoria around that time, and was last presented in Jasper, Alta. (as Murder at the Lodge) in 1983.
“It reads pretty modern, but if you listen carefully, you can tell it’s from the ‘70s,” said Wagner. “The fun thing about the show is that you get to see the actors perform the other characters on the stage. They actually role play each other mostly at the end, which makes it fun to see if the actors can pull it off. They are pretty good at imitating each other.”
Described as a light comedy, with lots of thriller elements, the mystery features several Okanagan actors last seen in the comedy Lend Me a Tenor at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre this past season.
Emily Heayn (also seen in Powerhouse’s Grease), Ashley Plomp, Chris Froese and Matt Brown, who directed Tenor and was last seen at the Powerhouse as the Old Woman in the Shoe in Jack and the Beanstalk, all have a role to play.
Murder at the Empress? also features Starling Taylor, last seen at Kelowna’s Bumbershoot Theatre in Munschapalooza.
Heayn portrays the mysterious wealthy eccentric who lives “upstairs” in the hotel, while Plomp is the hotel’s vibrant public relations manager who is suspicious of everyone.
Froese, who played the hilarious bellhop in Tenor, here portrays Victoria police inspector Randolph, who just happens to have a flare for the theatrical himself.
And Brown plays to type portraying a professional actor who also happens to be a compulsive thief, while Taylor is the cunning rising actress who loves to role play nearly everyone she encounters.
“It’s been great working with them,” said Wagner who this time last year directed his adapted version of Ichabod and the Headless Horseman at Powerhouse, and also presented his abstract play What’s Cooking? (George’s Last Dream) at the Schubert Centre during Vernon Winter Carnival earlier this year.
“The Performing Arts Centre is such as nice theatre, we just wanted to present a play there this time. We’re hoping to take this on the road after. The set isn’t elaborate. You get a feel for The Empress with the lighting and furniture.”
The Tragically Comic Players present Murder at the Empress? at the Performing Arts Centre, Saturday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $25/adult and $22 senior/student at the Ticket Seller box office, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca. The play is recommended for those 10 years old and up.