Mickie McKittrick, renowned true crime author and investigator, is getting ready to explain to me and my fellow seminar attendees the fundaments of amateur sleuthing. “I’m going to teach you everything you need to know in order to be a help and not a hindrance,” he promises. In this age of rampant internet detectives and citizen sleuths, it is paramount that we approach any cold case with the proper mindset and respect for the investigative process. Look for the means, motive and opportunity. Motive, especially. As McKittrick puts it, “The Motive is all!” The Geffen Playhouse presents Citizen Detective.
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse, Citizen Detective is a roughly 90-minute remote experience hosted over Zoom that is perhaps best described as a murder mystery, but with a few twists. Guests are sorted into teams with the help of a pre-show questionnaire, and each team is given unique information surrounding the murder that Citizen Detective is built around solving.
Styled as a seminar hosted by famed true crime author Mickie McKittrick (Mike Ostroski) – and occasionally interrupted by superfan and fellow amateur sleuth Andrea Piedra (Paloma Nozicka) – Citizen Detective begins with McKittrick waxing professorial over the correct way to approach internet detective work. From there, teams are sent into breakout rooms to discuss their specific pieces of evidence provided ahead of time, then reconvene in order to combine findings and begin the task of attempting to solve the murder. Suspects are slowly weeded out as new information is integrated with what the guests’ teams have already assembled, but as the list of potential murderers shortens unexpected developments ratchet up tension and complicate the investigation’s final steps.
One of the things Citizen Detective plays with quite a bit is the interaction between the past and present. And, whether intentional or not, it’s interesting how this interplay ends up almost always being synergistic. Fresh sets of eyes on old, fragmented evidence bring the prospect of solving a long-unsolved murder, for one.
There’s also a bit of film noir flavor worked into Citizen Detective. The murder we are attempting to solve dates back to the 1920’s and is laced with themes of cover-up, dirty secrets, money, and intrigue that would feel right at home in a Golden Age crime thriller. And, calling back to the theme of past meeting present, it becomes increasingly clear as Citizen Detective progresses that perhaps the murder has remained unsolved for a reason.
But a key element of Citizen Detective is the dialogue between McKittrick and Piedra. McKittrick is old-school academic, down to the tweed jacket and conservative décor of his home office. Piedra, meanwhile, is textbook millennial – enthusiastic, internet-savvy, and frequently interrupting McKittrick’s exposition to ask whatever question has just popped into her head. While McKittrick is obviously much less a fan of Piedra then she is of him, her probes actually serve the narrative well. On the surface they are impolite – if well-meaning – outbursts, but they also tee up McKittrick for exploring some more nuanced points around detective work. Their friendly rivalry ends up becoming a more and more important part of Citizen Detective’s plot progression, and enriches the experience throughout. Actors Ostroski and Nozicka are, it should be said, both fun to watch both on their own and when bantering together. Each had a well-developed personality and are very believable in their roles.
An area where Citizen Detective really stands out is its accessibility. Writer-director Chelsea Marcantel has put a ton of thought and effort into making the experience entertaining and appropriate not just for a wide variety of ages, but also for those both new to and experienced with immersive theater overall. McKittrick’s assistant Emir (Emir Yonzon) does a solid job of engaging with guests during the pre-show check-in; he greets each new arrival by name, handles and initial questions, and chats briefly about their pre-show questionnaire responses to help put them at ease. Guests are also walked through how to make sure they get the most out of the experience over Zoom, being reminded to close as many apps and browser windows as possible and given a real-time, step-by-step tutorial on how to configure their Zoom window so it’s optimized for the experience. Further, McKittrick and Piedra do a great job of moderating the discussion, leaving team spokespersons to discuss suspects and evidence organically but stepping in when necessary to guide the discussion.
That said, Citizen Detectives’s focus on accessibility does translate into a lot of hand-holding. Guests have almost no ability to discover clues for themselves, instead relying upon McKittrick and Piedra to furnish new information as the show progresses. This may rankle those who prefer to dig into things themselves. But, on the other hand, it makes sure that everyone is more or less on the same page throughout, and avoids the scenario where some folks solve the mystery much earlier than others and are left with nothing to do but wait. Given Citizen Detective’s goal of being a collaborative, rather than a competitive experience, this is an understandable design choice. Just know going in that you won’t be doing much in the way of actual investigation, but rather interpreting the facts as they become available.
Citizen Detective, then, might be best described as a fun, family-friendly puzzle-solver with a true crime theme. Well-performed, well-executed, and highly accessible, it is a good time for most ages and experience levels. But it is not a traditional murder mystery, so don’t expect to be hunting for clues or interviewing witnesses yourself. Instead, think of it as a guided tour through the process of amateur sleuthing, where you and fellow participants are working together to help a pair of veteran detectives solve an old and vexing conundrum.
Citizen Detective has shows running most nights through February 7th, 2021. Tickets are $65 per household, meaning that multiple family members can attend through the same ticket so long as they are around a single computer. Note that, like many live theater performances, check-in begins 30 minutes prior to showtime and guests who log on after their show starts will not be allowed to join.
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