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Valley Art Center Director Mary Ann Breisch, left, and mixed-media artist Suzan Kraus stand side-by-side with their mixed media collages that were used for the set of the play “Art of Murder.” Mrs. Breisch shows off her satirical “Shoe Collage,” and Ms. Krause shows off her two pieces, “Call & Response” and “Coloring Our Perceptions.” The play opens at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre main stage this Friday at 8 p.m.

It’s January and cold, dark and bleak outside. Just the combination of elements that make folks rush home from work on a Friday night, pull the covers up over their heads and not surface again until Monday morning.

The wintertime blahs cause what community theater people fear most – empty seats.

This year the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre has teamed up with the Valley Art Center to make sure that did not happen during the Jan. 17 to Feb. 8 main stage production of “Art of Murder.”

“We always want to get people here, but winter can be tough,” said Jean Hood, producer of “Art of Murder,” a murder mystery by Joe DiPietro.

So what’s the cure? Mrs. Hood landed on the idea of staging a series of 7 p.m. pre-curtain Happy Hour parties each Friday through the three-week run of “Art of Murder.”

Included will be a cash beer and wine bar, complimentary nibbles and local notables as guest bartenders known for their sparkle and wit.

They are Realtor-about-town Joanne Zettl and Chagrin Falls Councilwoman Angela DeBernardo and husband Dr. Rob DeBernardo, Jan. 24; Lea Mersol Sheptak, Jan. 31 and Chagrin Documentary Film Festival Director Mary Ann Ponce and Chagrin Studio Orchestra Conductor Steve Eva, Feb. 7.

Mrs. Hood explained that the “Art of Murder” requires some unique set pieces, four original artworks. Two represent “good” contemporary art and two had to be subtly “bad” works to illustrate the opposite. Both required the talents of skilled artists.

This is critical because the works illustrate the play’s central question – what is good art and what is bad art and are either worth dying for?

As luck would have it, Mrs. Hood was, at one time, executive director of the Valley Art Center. She reached out to the current director, MaryAnn Breisch, for ideas.

Mrs. Breisch, herself an artist, created the joke art, “Shoe Collage,” and the play’s touted “masterpiece,” a mysterious yellow painting named “Study in Red #4.”

Meanwhile, “Art of Murder” director/designer Brian Westerley and CVLT’s resident technical director Edmond Wolff collaborated with VAC’s mixed-media artist Suzan Kraus who added two authentic modern art pieces – “Coloring Our Perceptions” and “Call & Response” – to the set, a room in the secluded but sophisticated residence belonging to husband and wife artists.

Making the satirical pieces became something more for Mrs. Breisch after the recent passing of her son, Benjamin.

“They were terrific therapy for me,” Mrs. Breisch began, “the shoe piece and the yellow-red piece moved me a bit farther down the road to life after walking with Ben on his earthly journey.”

The egos of the fine art scene can be a real challenge and Chagrin Valley Little Theatre is out to prove it with its staging of the satirical murder mystery “Art of Murder” that asks audiences to guess not just who-done-it, but who was it done to?

The suspense thriller is set in the remote Connecticut countryside estate where its artist residents Jack and Annie Brooks are preparing to meet with their scheming art dealer, Vincent. Jack and Annie are accomplished artists, despite Jack receiving more recognition. Jack is no angel either. He is overbearing and mistreats his wife and makes passes at the maid as Annie becomes more and more vengeful.

In true suspense-thriller fashion, all four have the motive, means and opportunity. But who will kill and who will be killed? Or as Annie will say, “There’s a monster inside all of us, most of us keep the monster buried, but sometimes it must come out.”

New York Times writer Alvin Klein commenting about the play in general said, “Even though ‘Art of Murder’ is as much about the merchandising and the counterfeiting of art as the plotting and the counterplotting of murder, Mr. DiPietro is in an experimental mode on both scores.

“He is trying to freshen up stock devices of the suspense and scare genres: blackmail, a fake corpse, a mysteriously moved painting and all manner of not-unexpected red herrings.”

Together, the theater and art center have 130 years of history of perpetuating the cause of culture in Chagrin Falls and greater Cleveland area.

“Art of Murder” tickets are $19, with a $4 student/senior discount. For more information ,visit www.CVLT.org or by phone at 440-247-8955, Monday through Saturday from 1-6 p.m. CVLT’s main stage is located at 40 River St., Chagrin Falls.

The Valley Art Center address is 155 Bell St. in Chagrin Falls. Visit www.valleyartcenter.org, or call 440-247-7507 for more information.

A veteran reporter and columnist, Barbara Christian has been covering Chagrin Falls since 1967 and is currently responsible for Chagrin Falls village events, government and school board news along with her weekly column "Window on Main Street."

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