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MANCHESTER — Death and taxes: these are things in both history and metaphor that people are told they can never avoid. Theater may not be one such certainty, but after an almost four-year, pandemic-forced hiatus, local and visiting denizens of the stage will be thrilled to see an annual spring-fall ritual make a comeback just in time for the first leaves and flowers to grace Bennington County.

On April 29, the Wilburton Inn welcomes back its original, interactive dinner theater mystery series “Murder in the Mountains,” with a brand-new play to twist minds, make foreheads wrinkle and have audiences fully immersed in music, laughter and their own who-dun-it wild takes. All in an evening that has always sold out, over a weekend which also offers related events and lodging for those so inclined.

“This is our first mystery weekend since right before the pandemic, in 2019,” innkeeper Melissa Levis said. “It’s a tradition that goes back 20 years, and we are already planning for the fall edition in November. We get locals as well as visitors from afar and both the show and the Inn tends to sell out late in a surge of fans.”

Melissa knows something of this, as a professional singer and musician in New York City for many years. The plays in the series are original works written and produced by her sister Tajlei, a New York City playwright and also a Wilburton innkeeper, who can often be found revising scenes right through the final dress rehearsal.

Tajlei uses the Wilburton's rich history as the milieu for creative audience sleuthing.

“We want to keep everyone guessing as guests mingle and dine with the cast, and consult with each other on solving the mystery,” Tajlei said.

This spring’s comeback show is “The Case of the Missing Mummy.” Audience-diners will travel back in time to 1923 to solve a mystery inspired by local history and events.

“Perched on the top of a winding driveway, the 120-year-old Wilburton mansion evokes an Agatha Christie setting or real-life game of Clue,” Tajlei said.

Tajlei knows of what she speaks. “The Case of the Missing Mummy,” will be directed by Dorset local Sheila Childs, with musical direction by Michael Garvey.

“The plot is loosely inspired by the true tale of the Egyptian prince born to a pharaonic dynasty in Egypt, and buried, 4000 years later, in a Vermont cemetery, with a simple granite stone marked with the Egyptian symbols for life and soul,” Tajlei said.

The action begins at The Vermont Explorers Club and continues at an archeological dig site and Hollywood film production set among the pyramids in Egypt. The cast includes local favorites who are veterans of many Wilburton mystery productions.

Doctor Henry Farnham (Peter Langstaff), the determined collector, wants to acquire a mummy for his Vermont museum. He assembles an expedition team including the swashbuckling explorer Arlington Jones (Joe Mozer) and Egyptologist Olive Graves (Letitia Scordino). Arlington’s expertise is expensive, so Doc appeals to members of the Vermont Explorers Club to underwrite the excavation in Egypt in return for a share in the spoils.

Meanwhile, Broadway sensation Mimi Extravaganza (Nicole Mills), recently retired from the Sheffield Follies, is planning her film debut in an epic production: Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile.

To save money on scenery, the producer (Stewart Lane) decides to film on location in Egypt. Debutant Belinda Vanderhof (Talula Levis) and starstruck accountant Bob (Joey Masalsky) join the production. When Mimi and her entourage discover they are filming in the same desert as Doc’s dig, the sand starts flying. Local missionary priest (Egitzio Panetti), has an endless supply of authentic antiquities to sell at a very special price.

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The audience will dine with the cast as they join forces to solve the mystery. Guests are encouraged to dress in elegant cocktail attire suitable for 1923 Hollywood glamor or Egyptomania-inspired flapper fashion. A photographer will be on-hand to capture the fun. Prizes will be awarded for best sleuthing and most creative costume.

Professional actors Langstaff, Scordino and Childs, all from nearby Dorset, expressed excitement at the return of “Murder in the Mountains.”

Langstaff, who explained he has been “acting for 61 years,” said it “never gets old,” and being in a Wilburton cast is something he can relate to, with tweaks which are fun to be a part of.

“This is my third Wilburton production and I’m so excited to be back, as it is almost like being involved in an improv study,” Langstaff said.

Langstaff continued to say that so much of the creative side of the play is assembled and rehearsed in a very short time, with Tajlei and her famed ability to revise on full display.

“I have no doubt whatsoever of Tajlei’s abilities, as I have seen her rip out changes of several pages in a matter of an hour,” Langstaff said.

Childs agreed with Langstaff, adding that the biggest difference between these plays and a fully staged professional production on stage is the constant interaction between the cast and the audience-diners.

“We chat with the guests all the time, question who they think ‘did it,’ and what they have come up with about the underlying relationships of the characters, Childs said. “Some are spot-on. Some come up with wonderful sub-plots and conclusions. The audiences always get involved, and at times, really add to the actors' outlook. The whole experience is really a hoot. People are there to have fun, and I think they really do.”

Scordino recalled one fun time when an audience member chose her as the murderer.

“At the end of the play, when it's time to point a finger at the murderer, the audience stands behind, or next to, their chosen murderer,” Scordino said. “One little girl stood behind me and I think she had memorized my lines because she repeated them perfectly when she was asked why she believed my character to be the murderer!”

In all, Melissa Levis said that the “Murder in the Mountains” series is aimed at a fun time to be had by all.

“It’s a 20-year tradition that is very popular, and always sells out. That’s not by accident. Coming back to such events after the pandemic is so important, and we at the Wilburton are excited to finally bring this back for the public,” she said.

“The Case of the Missing Mummy” theater-dinner play by Tajlei Levis, and directed by Sheila Childs, will run at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Wilburton Inn, 257 Wilburton Drive, Manchester. For further information, show tickets or inn reservations if desired, call 802-362-2500 or email

Telly Halkias is a national award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.


Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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