If you've ever dined at Sutton's in Lexington, you can't help but catch the references to crime in the establishment's décor.
The numerous black-and-white photos and old-school newspaper copy feature mug shots of major mafiosi and images from Prohibition and of lawless gangsters that tell a story by themselves.
A few times a month at Sutton's, the elements of murder and corruption come to life in a more tangible, theatrical and entertaining fashion.
That comes courtesy of the Lexington-based interactive theater company Fantastical Theatricals, whose murder-mystery dinner productions have found a home at the restaurant.
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Fantastical Theatricals began in 1995 and has performed interactive productions at public and private audiences across Kentucky.
The theater group has performed in several restaurants in the Lexington area over the years, but it found a permanent home in October.
Kathy Hobbs, producer for Fantastical Theatricals, had an especially enjoyable dining experience at the relatively new, family-style Italian restaurant and proposed a partnership.
"I did not have a venue at that time in Lexington," Hobbs said. "I just felt a great deal of loyalty to staying at this one restaurant and building an audience there."
Gordon Lewis, manager of Sutton's, said, "She contacted the restaurant and said, 'Hey, we think we'd be a great fit.' It was an opportunity for us to tap into a market that had never been here before. We're trying to do some different things here to make us unique in Lexington."
Fantastical Theatricals performed its first murder-mystery production at Sutton's — the hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett spoof Sam Club, The Case of the Malted Falcon — to an audience of about 30. Each month that followed featured a different production, performed the first two Thursdays of every month.
As if the title of the first production didn't give it away, Hobbs and her fellow players have a love of farce and parody. The troupe has tackled musical, comical and interactive productions on source material including the classic TV sitcom I Love Lucy, the Indiana Jones film series and the mob drama The Sopranos.
The next show is called De-Witched, a parody of the TV sitcom Bewitched.
Hobbs says familiarity with the source material allows easier explanation and audience immersion in the plot.
But as wide-ranging as the stories might be, Hobbs said, one element must remain consistent.
"To me, there has to be a smoking gun," Hobbs said. "There has to be someone who done it and there has to be a clue that leads you to that person."
Of course, the whodunit aspect is just one element that Hobbs said makes the productions so enjoyable. Part of the fun for the audience is filling out a score sheet and taking part in solving the mystery. But the lack of a fourth wall that allows the six to eight actors to peruse the restaurant, feeling out the crowd to find who wants to play along — and how much they want to — provides extra excitement.
"It changed the energy forever for me. Sitting in a theater and watching a play is now boring," Hobbs said. "It's not the same in knowing that the energy from the audience makes a difference in your night."
The formula seems to be catching on with theater fans and diners alike. Fantastical Theatricals began adding a third show each month to compensate for its growing crowds, which now averages 50 to 55 people at each performance.
Hobbs doesn't see Fantastical Theatricals changing locations for a while. With its mix of dining, interactivity and a bit of bloodless bloodshed, the murder-mystery dinner theater seems to be a good marriage for all parties involved.
"Probably until Gordon says, 'Get out,' I'll probably stick with Sutton's," Hobbs said. "I guess we're stuck with each other for a while."