In an exclusive preview, the Star played the game in its Casa Loma debut with the hero of CBC’s highest rated drama in perhaps the coolest fan experience you can imagine. How could you possibly lose playing alongside Canada’s greatest turn-of-the-century sleuth?
Except, “I’ve never played an escape game before,” the renowned detective tells me at the start, casually eating a bag of almonds. At which point I learn not only that Bisson has never played, he’s not had lunch! My confidence is shot.
I’m surprised that the affable actor has never played his own game, based on a former Murdoch-themed experience at the historic George Brown House that was tweaked and moved this month to Casa Loma. If I had an escape game named after me, I’d be full-on William Shatner, trolling a Star Trek convention, showing up in costume and charging for selfies.
“I just haven’t had time,” says Bisson, sounding exactly like the self-deprecating Canadian cultural icon that he is. “I just didn’t get the opportunity. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly and really didn’t have an idea what it would be like, but I’m really impressed. I didn’t realize how elaborate it would be.”
We are standing by an old wooden staircase in one of the coach houses that belong to Toronto’s heritage Casa Loma estate.
The gothic revival-style castle is a turn-of-the-20th-century landmark and perfectly on brand for the Murdoch Escape Game. As if on cue, it’s pouring rain outside.
For those not familiar with escape games, think of it as mystery dinner theatre with actors who give you clues to solve a crime — without the dinner part.
Murdoch Mysteries is based on Maureen Jennings’ novels about the adventures of Toronto’s fictional Detective Murdoch. The period adventure-drama is seen in more than 100 countries, a Canadian success story that is airing its 12th season.
The Casa Loma game might be the start of bigger things to come. Christina Jennings (no relation to Maureen), Bisson’s boss and the head honcho behind shows like Murdoch and Frankie Drake Mysteries, imagines that there could be a museum and gift shop on the site, expanding the Murdoch universe.
“This is the start of possibly extending the show beyond the television property,” says the Shaftesbury CEO. “We are always looking to expand the Murdoch experience, whether it’s a play or exhibit or escape room.”
Earlier, we had all watched a video that reminded us “not to disassemble the furniture,” no running or stealing the game pieces, and not to assault the actors.
Organizers suggest at least four to six players to solve the crime in 60 minutes. But it accommodates as many as 12 players.
There are five of us: besides Bisson and I, Bisson’s writer-producer wife, Shantelle, Jennings and Shaftesbury publicist Judy Lung.
Shantelle suggests we name our team “Murdoch.”
Yannick diplomatically suggests we call it “Murdoch.Star1,” which I will forever use as my password.
I am vaguely disappointed, however, that the 49-year-old actor did not show up in period outfit of three-piece suit and bowler. Instead, he is wearing a black spandex cycling outfit with matching sneakers and what looks like oversized Tom Ford spectacles.
He is looking far too athleisure to be the straitlaced Murdoch. But he is here to play. And the pressure is on. Would the real Murdoch crack the case?
We are let into a room where a constable tells us that Detective Murdoch is missing. There is a prisoner in a cell jabbering stuff that is incomprehensible to us. There is a map on the wall. A typewriter and a phone offer clues. The clock is ticking.
It seems ridiculously meta: our objective is to find Murdoch. However, I was playing alongside the man who personifies Murdoch, who was essentially trying to find himself.
It was all a little too Friedrich Nietzsche for me.
“It was a bit weird,” admits Bisson, who talks in the same calmingly measured tones as his famous character. “I guess it was a bit of a custom-made game for me, because I did know some of the facts. But fans of the show would know them anyway and there is a lot of basic history.”
You don’t have to be a fan to figure out the crime. But even Bisson had trouble remembering some details, including one clue that asked for the name of a certain character.
“Oh, gosh. I know the actor’s real name. But I forget the name of the guy he played,” says Bisson at one point, popping out a staccato list of names before finally solving the clue.
I expected Bisson to cruise through the game, not taking it all that seriously. But he was in impressively full Murdoch mode, at times taking charge of the operation and delegating just like the fictional detective would.
We go through a series of puzzles, crosswords, anagrams and maps at dizzying speed.
Shantelle Bisson whizzes through the room finding key props.
“When I was little there wasn’t a nook or cranny my mom could hide the Christmas presents in,” says Bisson, plopping a police report clue she found in a drawer on the table. “My mom had to hide them in the car in the garage.”
Jennings is busy peering at a tiny map with a magnifying glass, while publicist Lung is solving a crossword with Bisson. Period music plays in the background, heightening the tension.
“This music is creeping me out,” says Lung.
A phone call from headquarters echoes over a loudspeaker reminding us that we have minutes to go.
I find myself at a blackboard trying to figure out what look like letters in the Greek alphabet.
I am no good at this. I once tried out for Jeopardy! and found myself a deer in reality TV headlights, clicking a fake buzzer and barely able to pronounce my name. Full disclosure: I am generously helped by the actors in the game, who keep talking to me, the same folk I have spent most of the time trying to not make eye contact with because it just feels weird. But frustrated by my dunderheaded inability to see the obvious (despite once being a crime reporter) they drop a serious hint or two.
I have to admit, it would be a better and funnier story if Bisson had failed to crack his own case. But, in the end, we were all very much Constable Crabtrees to Bisson’s Murdoch.
Just like in the Murdoch episode “A Midnight Train to Kingston” and with minutes to go, Bisson, on cue, solves the crossword and tackles the final clue involving magnets in the nick of time. Seriously. Just like on TV.
“It really was so much fun; it was like, ‘Oh my god, we have to help Murdoch before it’s too late!’” laughs Shantelle. “I really felt like I was in an episode.”
It says something about their professionalism that the couple showed up on the day that a devastating California wildfire had threatened their Los Angeles home and they had to evacuate their daughter and friends early that morning. No one they knew was hurt. But they did not know at the time whether their home would be spared.
Meanwhile, a mass shooting at a Thousand Oaks, Calif., bar that their children sometimes visited (their youngest, Mikaela, went to nearby Pepperdine University) had occurred only days earlier.
So their minds were, naturally, on other things rather than playing a game. But they had made a commitment and wanted to stick to it.
“It’s been a tough week really,” says Shantelle. “But this was a good opportunity to take our minds off what’s happening out there and really escape for a bit, which I think we all need sometimes.”
“It was brilliant, really brilliant. I’d love to play that again,” says Yannick afterward.
I ask him if playing Detective Murdoch actually made him a better detective. It certainly seemed that way.
He gave me a very Murdoch answer: “I’m not sure if I was particularly good really. The one aspect of Murdoch is that teamwork is everything. It’s the only real tool that I brought to the game and I think that was the key to unlocking the case.”
Tony Wong is the Star’s television critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @tonydwong