Sarah Pinzl, the female lead in The Night of the Assassins, walks stiffly in her period costume. "She's wearing a bullet-impervious corset," explains Wendy Thompson, the steampunk-themed production's writer and director. "Yes," Pinzl echoes. "It's pretty tight indeed."
The play, part of Thompson's eighth season of Mystery Train — billed as a "Murder Mystery Dinner Theater" — takes place on a train headed to Kansas City from the 1893 World's Fair (clue No. 1: a Ferris wheel and the introduction of alternating-current electrical power). Pinzl plays Rachel Dunn, a 23-year-old trained killer who's traveling with her mother. "Rachel is an interesting woman for her time," Thompson says. "She's a forward-thinker, and her job is her first priority." Pinzl nods in agreement, staying in character. "I have a natural killer instinct," she says.
The year 1893 was also key to the suffrage and temperance movements. And some believe that the Panic of 1893 caused the worst economic depression ever in America (clue No. 2: the collapse of railroad overbuilding).
"At that time, there was a good deal of social unrest," Thompson explains. "The suffrage movement, the temperance movement and the labor unions were all pushing for change. The railroad companies were targets for protests because of the speculation in the market that left the economy unstable. So the political climate was ripe for an assassination attempt."
Rachel is supposed to be protecting an important passenger on the KC-bound train: President Grover Cleveland. "Cleveland came through the West Bottoms in 1887 and was really impressed with this 300-steam salute some of the factories gave him," Thompson says. She adds that Cleveland was the first president to be assigned Secret Service agents, in 1894.
"Did it have something to do with a Kansas City trip?" she hints.
Back on the Mystery Train, the assassins alongside Pinzl are James East and Artemis Jorgenson, aging James Bond types (played, respectively, by Erik Pratt and Eric Van Horn) built for late-19th-century America (clue No. 3: Wild West archetypes). Thompson explains that East plays a federal agent onboard to protect Cleveland.
And this is where the audience participation ensues. Pinzl, Pratt and Van Horn are the only three actors. The remaining five characters are diners chosen by the actors during the meal's first course.
"Everyone gets guns and goggles," Thompson says (clue No. 4: gadgets). "Most of this story is complete fiction. We just wanted to have a little steampunk fun."
Those four clues won't solve the play's mystery — both Thompson and Pinzl agree that this installment of Mystery Train is especially difficult. But the clues add up to the production's primary aim: treachery and silliness, served up steampunk-style.