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Upper Burrell playwright enjoys her 'Murder' mysteries

| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 6:07 p.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Charlie Gaiser, Jan Schlegel and Debbie Kennelly rehearse a scene from the play, Murder At Knee-Hi High, on Friday November 15, 2013 at The Oakmont Elks Lodge in Oakmont.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
The cast of 'Murder At Knee-Hi High' rehearse a scene at The Oakmont Elks Lodge in Oakmont.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Marilyn McNally and Michelle Shuker, rehearse a scene from the play, Murder At Knee-Hi High, on Friday November 15, 2013 at The Oakmont Elks Lodge in Oakmont.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Dennie Kanouff, left, Frank Vollero, seated, and Harry Schlegel, rehearse a scene from the play, Murder At Knee-Hi High, on Friday November 14, 2013 at The Oakmont Elks Lodge in Oakmont.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Darla Vollero and Bud Perrone, rehearse a scene from the play, Murder At Knee-Hi High, on Friday November 15, 2013 at The Oakmont Elks Lodge in Oakmont.

High-school reunions are often full of zany personalities, but throw murder into the equation and those personalities become magnified.

That's the premise of the Oakmont Elk's murder-mystery dinner, “Murder at Knee-Hi High.”

“It's about the class of ‘yesteryear,'” says Marilyn McNally, the play's author. “One of the members of the class was a writer, Spencer Reiter, and he was murdered before the reunion. It's obvious one of his former classmates was the culprit.”

The dinner theater runs Nov. 22 and 23 at the Elks. Tickets are $20.

While the subject matter might seem heavy, McNally says the story is a comedy. Characters with names such as Cookie Skortch, a TV chef played by McNally, and Maya Pantzaroff, a promiscuous divorcee, add to the laughs.

“There's nothing normal about this,” McNally says. “We have bizarre characters, to say the least.”

McNally of Upper Burrell says she didn't draw from personal experiences at her reunions with the class of 1964 at what was then Oakmont High School. She says gathers her information from all that's around her. “I see humor in so many situations in life.

“There's a lot of adult humor,” she says. “It's not crude, but it's definitely geared toward adults.”

Cast members say they enjoy adding their own influences to shape their characters. “Marilyn (McNally) comes up with the play, but we all add our bits to the characters,” says Darla Vollero, who plays Inga Paige, a librarian with a wild side. “We all get to contribute.”

Vollero, whose husband, Frank, is also in the cast, said she loves to perform in the Elks' annual production because it's an escape from reality.

“It's kind of fun to let loose your inner-person,” Vollero of Penn Hills says. “My character, she's a little off the wall, she likes to drink. When she drinks, she doesn't do things you'd expect a librarian to do.”

Michelle Shuker of O'Hara is performing in her first Elks play. “I'm the newest member, and I got the most lines, they're very trustworthy,” says Shuker, who plays Detective Brunhild Bergenbacher, who is called in to solve the murder. “I'm a lawyer in real life and a detective in the play.”

Shuker, who has performed in other productions, says this cast is always loose — which makes the play even more fun. “It's very casual, very humorous,” she says. “From what I understand, during the play some cast members will just take jabs — that aren't in the script — at other characters.”

Jan Schlegel of New Kensington plays Betsy Bouffant, an airhead beauty queen. Schlegel affirms that the cast doesn't take itself too seriously.

“We're just a bunch of crazy Elks making fools out of themselves,” says Schlegel, who serves as treasurer of the organization. “We don't take anything seriously.”

Schlegel says her husband, Harry, has been with the group for many years. “Last year, they pulled me in to it. I guess I did OK, because they pulled me back in this year,” she says. “I love how everyone gets to add their own little touch.”

Cast members agree that the plays are a testament to the hard work and creativity of writer McNally. “She's an excellent writer, and she doesn't have a sensitive ego,” Shuker says. “That's what makes it so fun. She anticipated my character to be a mean old German woman, I'm completely incapable of doing a German accent, and she was fine with me playing it my way. Her character development is outstanding.”

McNally says seeing her creation acted out onstage is phenomenal.

“I've been writing these since 2004. Last year, it was a wedding. Another time, it was a western. One year, I didn't put myself in the play, and I felt kind of left out, “ she says. “So, now I write myself in.

“I like being someone else for a while.”

R.A. Monti is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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