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'Red Herring' has murder, romance and even comedy

"Red Herring," a play produced locally at the Sheldon Theatre by The Phoenix Theatre Company, has something for everyone: murder, romance, intrigue, espionage, comedy and communists.

All of these diverse elements make for a entertaining evening at the theatre.

There is more red in "Red Herring" besides the fish. The scene is 1952, the era of Eisenhower, Nixon and the Army-McCarthy communist hearings.

The play opens on two couples involved in very different marriage proposals.

Frank Keller, an FBI agent played by David Oakes, is proposing to Maggie Pelletier, a Boston police detective played by Marcy Watzl. Frank has been investigating spies selling secrets to the Soviets, and Maggie has been investigating the "Mercury Dime" serial killer who changes his identity after each hit.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, James Appel, a nuclear scientist played by Jesse Stewart, is proposing to Sen. Joe McCarthy's daughter, Lynn, played by Michelle Meyer.

Back in Boston, Maggie finds that the deceased, a Russian herring fisherman named Andrei Borchevsky, appears to be a victim of the serial killer. The body is identified as a tenant of the foul-mouthed Mrs. Kravitz, played by Helen Olson-Reed. Borchevsky is the same person Frank has suspected of supplying secrets to the Soviets.

It turns out that all is not what it seems, and Borchevsky (John Anderson) turns up. Although Borchevsky has a wife in Russia, he is romantically involved with Mrs. Kravitz.

In the midst of the mayhem, the two couples prepare for their nuptials.

While Lynn McCarthy and her mother (Min Martin Oakes) plan a traditional red-blooded American wedding, Lynn and James get ensnared in a plot to provide the Soviets plans for an atomic bomb.

James gets shipped off to the South Pacific to help test the bomb, and there is a terrific telephone sequence between James and Lynn with hilarious delayed reception problems.

Eventually, all wind up in Boston where the ultimate secret exchange is to take place. A scene in a Catholic Church with Lynn and Borchevsky simultaneously trying to confess to a priest (also played by David Oakes) is another highlight of the play.

The play is extremely challenging. The plot is very complex and convoluted. The pace is fast. Eight cast members play 17 parts. The scenes take place in three locations, sometimes almost simultaneously.

In order to accomplish this, several different sets are constructed on stage at the same time and scene changes take place in the open.

Under normal circumstances, such a suspension of disbelief might be distracting. But cast and crew pull all of this off while keeping the viewer engaged.

The actors seem very comfortable in their roles, even when switching between characters. The costumes are era appropriate, and the music sets the mood perfectly.

Julie Martin, who directs, does a masterful job of weaving all of the pieces together seamlessly.

All of that, and the message of the play is as applicable today as it was in the 1950s: We are still, in many ways, the same people we were 50 years ago. We still have our share of fear of various menaces, both foreign and domestic.

Tuesday was dress rehearsal, and Wednesday night was the preview. Remaining days the play will be presented include 7 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday.

As Mrs. Kravitz says, "Herring is a very versatile fish." There is something for everyone.

By Kent Speight/Contributor