Guests to guess who killed the circus

Wauwatosa Historical Society's 2013 Mystery Nights offer guests big tent twist

The Kneeland Walker House stairwell is the stage for Brooke Wegner (left), Nancy Domres, Clarence Aumend, Ken Smith, Marcia Mirr (right) and other characters in the 10th anniversary performance by the Hysterical Society Players in “The Night the Circus Died.”

The Kneeland Walker House stairwell is the stage for Brooke Wegner (left), Nancy Domres, Clarence Aumend, Ken Smith, Marcia Mirr (right) and other characters in the 10th anniversary performance by the Hysterical Society Players in “The Night the Circus Died.” Photo By C.T. Kruger

Feb. 5, 2013

Those looking to fashion themselves detectives for a night can try to figure out who killed the circus at the Historical Society's Mystery Nights at the Mansion. Was the strong man, the knife thrower, the sword swallower or the clairvoyant responsible for the circus' demise?

The mystery nights serve two functions: to raise money for the society and to have guests interact in the participatory theater nights.

The show takes place at 7 p.m. Feb. 15, 16, 22 and 23 at the Kneeland-Walker house. Tickets are $30 for the first night and $35 for each other night.

A mystery in four parts

This is the sixth biannual mystery night at the mansion and its theme sets it apart from previous performances. Normally, the theme is a sinister "who killed whom?" mystery. This theme is "who killed what?" The what is the fictional Argle-Bargle circus, a legendary troupe that suddenly and inexplicably disappeared into the mists of circus history.

Upon entering the Kneeland-Walker's historical doors, guests could run into Dahlia Destiny, soothsayer and clairvoyant, played by Nancy Domres. When the circus dissolved, Destiny had to make a living by running a psychic network.

"You look strange, which is a little off-putting, and you have to be bold enough to go up to a cluster of friends and it's up to the actors to pull them in before we ever do the scripted portion," Domres said. "(We) get them a drink and get them interested."

After some back-and-forth with Destiny and some libations, the characters assemble on the stairs to discuss the circus' demise, dropping hints as to who is at fault. Could it be the clown-fearing Esmeralda, enchantress and storyteller, played by Brooke Wegner? Her dislike of Bobo, the clown and husband of Darling, has caused a rift between the two.

Wegner and Domres worked out that piece of drama beforehand, using the script as a backdrop. "We want our actors to develop a backstory,"said Peggy Katz, the show's writer and director. "They work that out in conversation ahead of time but they're pretty tightly defined when they come in."

After a 15-minute act, the actors swoop into the crowd for intermission. The crowd can interrogate them, interact with them and do whatever they can to figure out who did it.

Some guest-detectives bring pads for notes. Others are more passive about the mystery, focusing more on interacting and having a good time. Once they think they know who did it, they write their guesses on sheets of paper along with motives.

At night's end comes the big reveal. The guest who came closest to guessing who killed the circus and why will receive a to-be-determined house prize.

Getting into character

Losing themselves as someone else is the most important aspect for the actors. While there is a short scripted part, most of their night is answering questions and engaging the audience on the fly.

"You act freely as an actor," said Clarence Aumend, who plays Pizi the sword-swallower. "You go with it. If someone asks you a question you have to ask 'What would Pizi say?'"

The hardest part for Domres is when someone she knows attends a show. Sometimes people will say "How are you Nancy?" to which she'll reply that she doesn't know who Nancy is and that she is Dahlia Destiny.

Another challenging aspect for the actors is that they are in character and on display for the night's entirety. Their only time to take a breath and recollect is when they take a bathroom break.

Guests and drinks can sometimes lead to interjections during the night's scripted portion. The actors have to have a quick wit and be prepared to rebuff jests and insults off the cuff. They must also be prepared for any and all questions from guests. As a rule, they won't lie outright to the guests but must perfect the art of misdirection and encourage anyone who goes off on a tangent.

What's most important, however, is having fun.

"I don't think it's so important that they guess but they have fun doing it and enjoying the evening," said Ken Smith, who plays Vincent the Ringleader. "If they weren't doing that, then what's the point of us doing it?"

By the Numbers


Years of Mystery Nights at the Mansion


Dollars to get in


Next year of Mystery Nights


Chance to guess who killed the circus

Just the Facts

WHAT: Mystery Nights at the Mansion

WHEN: 7 p.m. Feb. 15, 16, 22 and 23

WHERE: Kneeland-Walker House, 7406 Hillcrest Drive

CONTACT: or (414)-774-8672


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