CLEARWATER — Beware! The Scranton Strangler is prowling the streets! Or at least, that’s how every day has felt in this pandemic, right?
If you are a fan of The Office, you know the reference to the series’ serial killer. If you’re not a fan, how did you get through quarantine? Seriously, what TV show did you leave on as a comforting reminder of shared human experience? After flargteen viewings of The Office, I need a new idea.
Anyway, the Strangler is the prey in The Office! A Murder Mystery Parody: Who Is The Scranton Strangler? at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre. It’s actually around the theater, a walking tour of downtown Clearwater. You’ll meet Dwight outside the Pinellas County utilities building, Jim and Pam in the municipal parking garage, and so on.
I wondered, could this be the ultimate in pandemic art? An outdoor production sending up a sitcom that helped so many get through a terrible year?
The show comes from Right Angle Entertainment and Bob and Tobly McSmith, buddies responsible for parodies including takes on Friends and Full House. But this parody is redesigned for the times.
I, ever fidgety about pandemic events, took in a preview. Our group had 14 people, and everyone wore the required masks. The rules include staying 6 feet apart, but the vigilance is on you. On the whole, it felt airy enough.
Dunder Mifflin’s Michael Scott is the tour guide, played by Jonathan Van Dyke in our group. Shows depart every half hour, with a masked Michael making plenty of “that’s what she said” jokes. The cast fights the elements of Cleveland Street, alarms and motorcycles and non-paying gawkers. It’s a challenge that makes every show different.
Now, this is not The Iceman Cometh. You won’t leave pondering the fruitless illusions of hope (or will you?). It’s a silly, short chance for audience participation and improv, to see Meredith Palmer in her casual Friday dress and float your own theories (in my household, we believe Toby Flenderson is the killer).
But more than that, this kind of gentle performance dips a toe back in the pool of life. There’s a spectrum between packing bars and total isolation, and we’re all finding our way.
The coronavirus has walloped theaters all year, and some responded with creative, open-air shows. Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg converted the parking lot for performances, including War of the Worlds: A Live Drive-in Radio Experience. St. Petersburg Opera periodically pops up with song at Cage Brewing. Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota moved outside, too, recently telling the story of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer in Fannie.
I talked to Dwight, I mean, Jim Sorensen, a few days after our tour. Before the pandemic, he worked full-time as associate producer at American Stage. He’s still there, but the work has drastically scaled back. When the world shut down, he did some Zoom Shakespeare, commercials, web design, theater tech, even worked for Amazon over the holidays.
“I had gotten spoiled,” he said. “Basically, since I came down to the Tampa Bay area, I’ve had full-time jobs in the arts. It’s been a huge transition to the gig economy, to chasing things down... I’ve got no cake. It’s just icing.”
When he got a call that this production needed a Dwight, he was pumped. To get the chance to work, to look a human in the eye and lovingly roast them, to make them laugh?
“That’s what I’m most drawn to about this,” he said. “I know I’m creating completely escapist theater, and that’s absolutely okay, and more necessary than ever.”
After our tour, Cleveland Street twinkled with lights. World fusion group Kafkasso played for lingering outdoor diners, as a different Michael Scott ran down the sidewalk to meet his cue. It felt like an engine starting, a sign that we might soon feel something again.
That’s what she said.
If you go
The Office! A Murder Mystery Parody: Who Is The Scranton Strangler? runs through March 14, with multiple performances each day. Masks required. $44-$49. Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. (727) 791-7400. rutheckerdhall.com.
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