Looking for a taste of last week’s art drama but would rather skip the whole escape via sewer bit? Well, the Society for Performing Arts has you covered with Art Heist: A True Crime Walking Experience.
A Covid-safe theatrical walking tour, Art Heist follows the real 1990 theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which saw 13 works of art—including significant pieces by Degas, Rembrandt, Manet, and Vermeer—disappear into the night. The stolen works were valued at about $500 million, making this the highest-valued art heist in the world. Despite a handful of promising leads, the FBI has yet to solve the case.
Enter: you, a visitor-turned-FBI-recruit tasked with determining which of the four suspects is most likely to have been involved with the heist.
Of course, you’re not the first to try and crack this half-billion-dollar arts caper. Following a successful premiere at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, Art Heist had sold-out runs in San Antonio and Austin before venturing to the Bayou City.
After receiving instructions from Museum Security Director Anthony Amore (played by Jakob Hultén), visitors meet four persons of interest all while using the program’s electronic dossier to review actual clues and recordings from the case on their phones.
Each of the suspects make for compelling leads. Rick Abath (Alicia Earls), a museum security guard, mysteriously opened a side door minutes prior to the robbery, while career criminal David Turner (Shannon Uphold) was spotted delivering a vase similar to the Gardner’s missing Chinese gu to his lawyer’s office months after the heist.
Georgette Lockwood’s Brian McDevitt and Ryan Adam Wells’s Myles Connor, Jr., two of the more eccentric characters, present their own unique mysteries; the former fled to South America following the heist and reportedly died in 2004, while the latter, though imprisoned at the time of the robbery, had a history of stealing fine art and was known for orchestrating crimes from behind bars.
Tasked with responding to a smattering of audience questions, the cast does a superb job in each of their unique and illustrious roles, right down to their emulations of the famed Bostonian accent.
Visitors will especially revel in the outsized personalities of McDevitt and self-described “Renaissance Man” Wells while Mellissa Marlowe and Taylor Needham provide steady, cool-headed performances in their roles as Detective Harold Smith and FBI investigator Bob Wittman, respectively, calmly guiding visitors through the complexities of the case. As the cast’s swing, Elissa Cuellar makes for an excellent David Turner; situated among potted plants and wielding a pair of pruning scissors, she displays genuine exhaustion at the pseudo-FBI recruits that bother her for clues.
Indeed, it is the cast that makes this 90-minute stand-in for traditional theater worth patronizing. However, there is hardly anything in the ways of set design, and good theater—inside or out—benefits from the efforts of a talented stage crew.
Still, as Art Heist enters its final week of performances, Houstonians would do well to fill the remaining spots. After all, as the cast reminds us, the Gardner Museum offers $10 million to anyone who offers information that results in the recovering of the stolen works.
Through March 28. From $39.50. Fish Plaza, Wortham Center. More info and tickets at spahouston.org.