Fall brings a chill to the air and thrills to the stage with the third installment of the Peoria Park District’s Teen Mystery Dinner. The annual project is brought to the public courtesy of the Park District’s Teen Advisory Council, according to Mystery Dinner Director Mary Ellen Ulrich. “The Teen Advisory Council is a group of teenagers representing various high schools. They meet once a month to plan activities for both teens and pre-teens.”

The mystery this year is Till Death Do Us Part, which takes place November 1 and 2. “We always try to hold the Mystery right after Halloween on the first weekend in November and hope for nice weather to accommodate a possible clue hunt,” Ulrich said.

As the title indicates, this production is set at a wedding. “It will be a fun night—just like attending a not-too-boring wedding reception. This wedding reception, however, will have a twist I certainly hope most weddings don’t have. And one of the best parts is you don’t have to bring a gift, but be sure to bring a camera for more fun,” she said. “The draw for this particular mystery is it’s totally different from the past two mysteries, High School Whodunnit and The Ghost of Jeb Taylor. I try to pick a mystery with several characters and one that’s completely different from past shows.”

That’s as much of a storyline as Ulrich will discuss; the plots of the Teen Mystery Dinners are always closely guarded secrets. “I, along with the cast, signed a secrecy contract. I can tell you our cast consists of 21 students representing nine area high schools and one student who’s home schooled. There are 10 new people in the Mystery and 11 returning cast members from previous years.”

Cast members include Emily Stinson, Erin Wood, Blair Kelly, Laura Miller, Katy Hawley, Megan McKinney, Farah Abi-Akar, Cherity Cook, Whitney Shoumaker, Morgan Sleck, Michelle Hartenbower, Billy Kearney, Drew Overcash, Phillip Reardon, Quinn O’Rear, Scotty Sauder, Jimmy Ulrich, Micah Spayer, Brandon Cheney, C.J. Tuor, and Matt VanderVennett. Former Teen Mystery Dinner actor Jarrod Bainter is a directing apprentice, and Rosie Chase is production secretary. “It’s really been an honor for me to work with such a talented and spirited group of kids,” Ulrich said.

The onstage actors and behind-the-scenes crew are only one part of the evening; dinner needs to be served, as well. “We’re always lucky to get teens to volunteer to help support us as waiters and waitresses on the nights of Mystery. It becomes an event in itself and is a very sought-after job. Last year one of our waiters began throwing rolls to the audience, and everyone liked that. The teens who volunteer as a support person love to do it and put their bid in early. It’s fun to see them returning to help out again,” Ulrich said.

The Teen Mystery Dinner, which can accommodate 160 guests each evening, takes place at Ravina on the Lake this year, which Ulrich said is fitting given the subject matter. “It’s absolutely the perfect choice because it hosts many wedding receptions. I try and fit the location with the Mystery; it just makes it more realistic and, again, you won’t get bored. It’s a very natural fit for Till Death Do Us Part to be at Ravina on the Lake.”

Because of the hush-hush nature of the production, only a few people are in on each year’s play selection. “Till Death Do Us Part was selected from several different scripts. It’s hard to pick a script because most mysteries are written for just a few characters. The play is chosen after being read by the director and the teen coordinator. It isn’t passed through any committee because it’s under high secrecy.”

Ulrich became involved with the Park District six years ago when she was asked to be on the board for Community Children’s Theater. “In the summer I direct Park Players, a high school acting troupe. I really enjoy working with teenagers in the theater setting, and found it a great compliment when the Park District asked me to be the director of Mystery.”

She explained the Teen Advisory Board first undertook Mystery three years ago as a way to involve local teenagers in presenting a new means of entertainment. “I think it’s very important for teens to be able to showcase their talents. Personally, I love watching young people use their creativity in the arts, and I’m constantly amazed at how much talent we have in our community. Our various theatres will be in good shape for many years due to the talent of these young people. They truly love entertaining, and it shows in their work.”

Teens are the only age group on the stage, but a variety of people make up the audience. “The actors love to stump their teachers, parents, and their friends. Pre-teens also love these mysteries; one year there was a table of 13-year-olds celebrating one of their birthdays. Last year a Mystery Fan Club from Bloomington came together. Everyone loves to solve a mystery, and this is really much like playing ‘Clue.’ People enjoy coming as a group, sitting together, and trying to solve the mystery. They have fun watching the play, looking for clues, and eating a meal together. We hear, ‘It’s so much fun; we loved it. What are you doing next year?’”

Ulrich said the most difficult task every year is not being able to cast all of the teens who audition. The kids, of course, are the best part. “I love working with these talented kids and seeing them grow in confidence and ability. It’s always rewarding for me to see them in other productions and see how well they do. I try to follow them, and often times, the kids I directed will come back and give me a hand with other shows. I enjoy passing down my love of theatre to these fine young people.” AA!