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Participants from a production of Sinister Speakeasy surround the "body." From left, Tanya Davis, Ben Fisler, Leonard Gilbert, Jon Evans and Jess Rivera.
Participants from a production of Sinister Speakeasy surround the "body." From left, Tanya Davis, Ben Fisler, Leonard Gilbert, Jon Evans and Jess Rivera. (HANDOUT)

Do you want to kill your boss?

Wendy Olenik asked that question to a room full of swingers and gangsters on a dark night in October at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Columbia.

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As the owner of Whodunnit for Hire, a murder mystery entertainment production, Olenik has entertained a variety of audiences, from corporate team building groups and family celebrations to the general public. Almost all of her events involve audience participation, with a dead body as a prominent character.

“The dead body scene starts the mystery,” said Olenik, who has seen her share of participants nominate their boss for the role. From there, Olenik has volunteers from the audience take on roles of suspects.

“You hear a scream and a body drops to the floor,” said Stewart Dearie, owner of Baldwin’s Station Restaurant in Sykesville, another venue that hosts Olenik’s productions regularly. “People let themselves go. They come in costume and really take on the part.”

On Oct. 19, Olenik hosted a Sinister Speakeasy mystery at the DoubleTree. At the fundraiser she organized for Maryland Public Television, guests arrived dressed as flappers and gangsters and dined on dishes named after characters from the “Downton Abbey” series, including “Lady Mary’s chicken marsala” and “Mr. Carson’s cod.”

“Eighty to 85 percent of the guests come dressed up; that really sets the theme,” Olenik said. “I want it to be interactive. My favorite part is sitting with guests at the table and answering questions.”

Wendy Olenik, right, rounds up the suspects at the Sinister Speakeasy event in Columbia.
Wendy Olenik, right, rounds up the suspects at the Sinister Speakeasy event in Columbia. (Katie V. Jones)

For the Sinister Speakeasy, Olenik had only one other cast member – Leonard Gilbert – with her. The rest of the characters were from the audience.

“We provide a great level of entertainment,” Gilbert said. “It’s a very unique show. Everybody usually has a good time.”

Elkridge Furnace Inn has been hosting murder mysteries two or three times a year for years, according to Patrick Rodeheaver, a chef.

“We have the perfect venue for it,” said Rodeheaver, of the old inn built in 1800. “We have the whole ‘Clue’ vibe.”

Michael Lynch, owner of East Coast Murder Mystery, has performed several times at Elkridge, though this Halloween marks the first time he was to perform with his own company at the venue.

“We are a live-action ‘Clue’ and include elements you might find in an escape room,” Lynch said. “We don’t have a stage. We are at your tables and are all around.”

Interactive murder mysteries, Lynch said, “provide an escape.”

“We always encourage people to dress up and take part however they want to,” Lynch said. “Every crowd is different. Every show is different.”

Olenik was not always involved with interactive theater. She first formed a traditional theater company years ago with a cast of actors to present a whole play for companies. She discovered it was not what people wanted.

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“People kept asking me ... to write one for us,’” Olenik said. “I heard that over and over.”

In 2005, Olenik formed Whodunnit for Hire in Sykesville. Backed by a core group of actors she has had for years, Olenik’s productions typically last two hours and are more like a game than traditional theater, with characters providing clues from a script to each table.

The shows are also meant to be enjoyed, not to terrify.

“My stories are not about gruesome acts but more about crazy characters and zany comedies,” Olenik said. “I never want to scare or frighten anybody. I want it to be a good night out.”

The Elkridge Furnace Inn hosts several murder mystery dinners throughout the year.
The Elkridge Furnace Inn hosts several murder mystery dinners throughout the year. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

For Linda Nabb, the Sinister Speakeasy was a chance to celebrate her birthday with family and friends.

“This is something I really wanted to do,” Nabb said. “I love murder mysteries. I love to dress up and I love MPT. It seemed to fit.”

At her smaller shows, Olenik hosts a 50/50 raffle with proceeds donated to Maryland Public Television. On Oct. 19, she collected $126 for MPT.

“They have some of the best murder mystery shows,” Olenik said. “I’m a huge fan.”

Olenik has two more dates for “Sinister Speakeasy” scheduled at Doubletree by Hilton – Nov. 3 and New Year’s Eve.

“She usually gets a pretty good turnout,” said Leroy Williams, banquet manager for Doubletree by Hilton. “On Valentine’s Day, she had 140 people”

At Baldwin Station’s, Olenik shows typically fill to capacity.

“She is one of the best we’ve ever had,” Dearie said. “Two people can have a good time. A group of a dozen or more, and it becomes hilarious.”

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