JANESVILLE—If you’re trying to stretch your entertainment dollar, seeing Janesville Little Theatre’s production of “Murder at the Prop Table” is an economically responsible move.

The farcical comedy is described as “a play in a play,” so you could make the argument you’re getting a two-for-one deal.

“Murder,” which premieres Friday, Feb. 2, in the black box theater at the Janesville Performing Arts Center, treats patrons to a storyline split between onstage and backstage locations.

Former theater stars Alex and Lynn Puddington are unhappily married. Alex is in love with Jane, who is the prop mistress in a new production he and Lynn hope will revitalize their careers. But Jane is the girlfriend of Herbert, the show’s nerdy playwright. As the curtain goes up the night of the show’s premiere, Lynn is angry, Jane is confused, and Herbert is worried about potential critics in the audience.

The drama taking place backstage bleeds into the production as the characters find the lines blurred between what they think is happening and what actually is happening.

“You see the play being done, plus what’s going on backstage,” explained director Rebecca Vanderheyden. “So when a character such as Alex is doing what I call the ‘play play,’ and he looks through the curtain to see Herbert kneeling down holding Lynn’s hand backstage, he thinks that there is a proposal going on and that his wife is having an affair, but that’s not really what’s going on. There is a lot of misunderstanding like that.”

Things are further complicated with the introduction of a confused gardener, the struggling stage manager and a dead body. But it’s the confusion that creates the comedy.

“The first night we did a read-through with all the actors around the table, we could barely get through it because we were laughing so hard,” Vanderheyden said.

“Murder” is a bit of a departure for Vanderheyden, who has directed previous plays for JLT. This will be her first time directing a comedy production, and she’ll be working with several actors who are new to the troupe.

“There are a lot of newcomers to our company, and I think out of the six cast members maybe one has actually worked with JLT before,” she said. “This is kind of a brand-new cast, which is exciting.”

According to Vanderheyden, Jay Goodwin, who plays Alex, has done a lot of work in Beloit theater and mentioned wanting to branch out as his reason for auditioning. Steve Ellis, who plays Hal the gardener, is a “theater person,” she said, and he brought in Naomi Howard, who plays Jane and has long been associated with the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

“Rosemarie (Titus, who is the stage manager) I have worked with before,” Vanderheyden added. “I haven’t worked with Nina (Wagner, who plays Lynn), but when I was asking about her, everybody said she was great.”

Also taking part in the play is Matt Johnson, whose past work included the role of xxx in JLT’s production of ‘Lombardi.’

Playing no small part in the production also is JPAC’s black box theater, which was created specifically for JLT and provides a more cozy venue for smaller shows.

“I like the intimacy that you get with the audience and, to a certain extent, with having no microphones,” Vanderheyden said. “In the black box theater, you have to really get in your facial expressions and emotions, because the audience is right there looking at you. On the big stage, you don’t have to do that quite as much.”

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