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Dead in the water
The interactive murder mystery 'Murder Afloat' enters its 21st season
Cast of crazies: Some of the Riverboat Cruise's potential killers

There’s something foul on the Savannah River. And it’s not the stinking remnants of last week’s diesel spill.

As sure as there’s green beer on St. Paddy’s Day, a homicide will be committed aboard a Riverboat Cruise vessel every Thursday night — right under the noses of the passengers, who will then try and point a collective finger at the perpetrator.

Murder Afloat, the comic mystery that’s been a tourist staple on the river for 21 years, is setting sail once again beginning April 1.

During the 90–minute cruise, a troupe of actors — dressed as normal folk, and mingling inconspiculously with the paying customers — will spring to thespian life and perform an interactive story of sin and suspicion

Only one thing’s for certain — somebody in the cast is going to die, and die before the boat is a mile from its River Street moorings.

“It’s a floating stage, basically,” says Murder Afloat playwright, producer and performer Jack North. “What I like about doing it on the boat, you are isolated, even though you’re right there on the river, not out on the ocean.

“So if anything happens on the boat — like oh, say, a murder? — we have to deal with it before we get back to the dock. Or ... we’ll all be arrested?”

A resident of Savannah for 34 years, North was in radio and television before he got interested in acting. Stints in local productions with City Lights and the old Savannah Theatre led him to take a role in an interactive murder mystery in Hilton Head.

“I wasn’t particularly impressed with the show, but I was intrigued by the idea,” North recalls. “I told the owner, you should come over to Savannah and do these on a regular basis, because Savannah’s tourist industry is growing. I said you could probably do a weekly show and get 100 people each time. That show was playing to 30, 40 people.”

But South Carolina’s loss was Georgia’s gain — the owner wasn’t interested. So North decided to bring the idea to Savannah, using his actor friends from community theater.

“I like mysteries, but I’m not a mystery buff,” he says. “I mean, I like Sherlock Holmes as much as anybody else. I’d never written a script before, but I wrote a script. I knew what I didn’t want to do from having done the one in Hilton Head.”

Murder Afloat was a success from the first time it shoved off.

“With other murder mysteries, I hated the real hokeyness of the setup. They have the stereotypical characters, like the rich widow with the feather boa and the cigarette holder. Or they’ve got the Great White Hunter with the pith helmet. Those stock Clue characters.

“And it’s not that my show isn’t necessarily hokey. I think it’s a couple of steps up from that.”

At the end of each cruise, the first audience member to correctly guess the killer wins a prize (the script changes every season, so repeat visitors generally get a fresh scenario).

North refuses to make his perpetrator “the person you’d least expect.” He wants his audience to have a shot at figuring things out.

“I like to play fair,” he explains. “Through the show, there are clues — verbal clues, sometimes visual clues — that really do lead to one person.

“A lot of people say ‘You know, you could change this up every week and make the killer a different person.’ Yeah, I could do that, but that’s not really playing fair.”

Murder Afloat isn’t a dinner cruise — there’s a cash bar, and snacks. And the stage isn’t fixed — it’s the entire boat.

“It’s a fully scripted show,” North says, “but between scenes, as we’re going from one deck up or down to another, people from the audience ask questions. They’ll say ‘What were you arguing about?’ or ‘What did you mean when you said blah–blah–blah?’ So you stay in character. You gotta think on your feet.”

Improvising is also a key component of North’s other gig. He’s been a horse–and–carriage tour guide, trotting tourists up and down the city’s historic streets, since 1998.

“The one cool thing about carriage driving here, as opposed to say Charleston, is that there’s no set route,” he says. “There are certain streets we’re not supposed to go on, like Bay Street obviously, but we can mix it up.

“That keeps it fresh, and it keeps the horses from getting bored going the same way all the time.

“It’s kind of hard to avoid something interesting in the Historic District, because no matter where you go, there’s something to talk about.”

For Jack North, there’s no business like show business. “Each tour,” he says, “is like a little performance.

“Once a ham, always a ham.”

Murder Afloat

When: 9:30–11 p.m. Thursdays

Where: Boards on River Street, next to the Hyatt (looks for the signs)

Tickets: Adults $27.95; under 12 $19.95

Phone: (912) 232–6404