The Theatre of Mystery
Both a physical building, the wreckage of a large opera hall, and an organization, the troupe of Kenku troubadours who maintain the theatre. The troupe accomplishes this fairly effectively despite a number of significant obstacles, such as the presence of ruthless raider gangs to the west and a maniacal apocalypse cult to the north, and the fact that the Opera House is thoroughly haunted. Besides which, though they can write anything they like, Kenku speech is limited to repeating phrases and sounds they've already heard. As such, they like visitors and will sometimes engage in markedly strange conversation simply because they're trying to get the other person to say a certain phrase or word needed for the play. The group has nine members, and though each has his or her own particular strengths, the various tasks involved in writing, staging, directing, acting, set design and props change from one production to the next. Plays can only have a maximum of seven actors on stage at once, because one person has to work the curtains and music, and another works at the ticket booth in case an audience other than the ghostly patrons within should come to the theatre. The limitations of their speech, the paucity of raw materials for sets and costumes, and the dark contours of Kenku faces necessitate a surreal sort of symbolic theatre, with masks made from paper sheets, rags, or straw, and both props and backdrops often imagined rather than detailed in the production. Within these limitations they create ambitious works of genuine artistic merit. A lack of copyists and the relative expense and rarity of sheaves of blank paper have helped the Theatre refine their repertoire to their four most popular plays:
- "Whispers of the Void": In this play, the Kenku actors embody the darkness and chaos of the Void. They whisper unintelligible words and use intricate choreography and spotlighting effects to convey the sense of being lost in an infinite, formless void. As the play progresses, the audience begins to feel as though they too are lost in the void, until the final, dramatic climax. Parts of this play are staged in the audience and on the balcony.
- "The Masked Stranger": The Kenku actors in this play wear elaborate, ornate masks as they act out a tale of mystery and intrigue. The story centers around a stranger who comes to town, and the strange events that occur in his wake. As the actors remove their masks, the audience is left wondering whether the stranger was truly a stranger, or someone they knew all along. This play and its message of underlying community is perhaps their favorite to perform, and is the most straightforward of their plays, with the others bordering on performance art rather than merely performance.
- "The Phoenix Cypher": In this play, the Kenku actors use dance and blended voices and sounds to tell the story of a mythical bird, the Phoenix, and its journey of rebirth. Using shadow puppetry, the chants of Aot's Salvation priests (sounds that involved some danger in the acquisition, surely) and intricate pyrotechnics, the play follows the Phoenix from its birth to its destruction and in the end, its fiery rebirth, a symbol of hope and renewal.
- "The Dance of the White Cranes": This play focuses on the graceful movements of the crane, a bird revered for its beauty and elegance. The Kenku actors use intricate dance choreography and costumes to embody the essence of the crane, weaving a tale of love, loss, and the natural beauty of the world. As the cranes take flight, the audience is left with a sense of awe and wonder at the majesty of nature.
Transitional; the roles are the same from play to play, but the person in the role will change from one play to another. At the top of the stack is the Director, who shares leadership power with the Writer and the Producer but is the deciding vote in case of disagreement. Next are the actors, and at the bottom, the stage manager and the ticket taker. Multiple roles at once are common, but one's authority rests in the highest role of many - so one who is a director but also an actor can still overrule the writer or the producer in the case of a disagreement. In practice, the Kenku have committed their lives to these plays and the cause is always most important. The feedback of the audience, such as it is - many nights just a raging whirlwind of popcorn and candy in the seats - also figures in to their decisions.
The Theatre of Mystery is devoted to maintaining this grand Opera House despite its destruction along with the rest of the city in the long-off war between the Realm and the Empires of Silk and Spice. Cobbling together stone masonry, roofing tiles and wood from other demolished building rubble, they have been able to rebuild the place and perform plays - not Operas, but they are doing their best. So what if the roof leaks or the stage sags in the middle? The show must go on. So what if the audience is a poltergeist and two legless and armless zombies gnashing their teeth in the balcony? The show must go on. So what if an actual Eye of Fear and Flame manifested in the cellar? THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
In the largest sense, the Theatre of Mystery is a preservationist society. The nature of Kenku speech has an interesting side effect - the words and phrases of generations past are heard and recorded, and passed on to future generations, such that some of the things one hears in the plays aren't just the ideas of the past, but the actual voices of the actual people who lived and died in this city. Though none of them were alive at the time, these Kenku preserve in them the sounds of the city dying, of widows screaming for their husbands and widowers screaming for their wives and children, and so many children screaming; the sounds of buildings burning and collapsing, of death and destruction - the actual sounds their ancestors heard, and passed on to them. But so to were the voices of the days before - and the sounds of spring peepers and kittens, of mill wheels and farm wagons and the ring of the smithy's hammer. The plays are their expression, but the thing they must do is preserve what was lost, and share it where they can.
Though a shabby troupe compared to many, the Theatre of Mystery at least owns their own theatre, rent free, and has the advantage of simply being able to take whatever they need from anywhere else in town, other than the dangerous parts up north or asking for trouble from the Ravagers that hang out around Tavager's Tavern. They have a small collection of knucklebones for trade with the Ravagers, who are at least tolerant of their existence and who occasionally even take in a show. They also have a small supply of copper, silver and gold coin acquired from their activities rooting through the ruins looking for costumes or bits of wood for their backdrops. Their evident poverty - and the fact that their theatre is haunted, and protectively so - are the factors that keep them safe.
The City of Blood was once something else - a normal mountain town with an economy based on mining and farming, wealthy enough to have several cultural centers including a modest opera house where different performances would be held, and large enough to have a significant population of Kenku - perhaps thirty or forty all together. These were an acrobatic singing troupe that also performed card and rope tricks with a kitschy horror element. When they performed at the Opera House, it was named the Theatre of Mystery and was one of the more popular events, especially with the children. When war came, the Opera shut down, and the smarter performers abandoned the Theatre for safer lands. But the Kenku had made a home over generations, and had little money for travel and nowhere else to go without needing to start over from scratch to overcome the common prejudices of anywhere else they went. So they stayed, and kept performing. And in their choice, they became witnesses to the Realm destroying the city to keep it from falling into their enemy's hands, and any who protested the decision being labeled as traitors and killed in the streets, such was their fear of the Empires of Silk and Spice making it into the Realm heartland. The Kenku made no protest, simply assuring the soldiers that the show must go on. Then the soldiers left, and were annihilated in the Battle of Black Snow, and some of the people who had left came back; but that fall, the Empire's solders massacred the town, and destroyed the theatre and every other building in the city. A few Kenku - their history says only five, and luckily three were female - survived. And in the silence, they rebuilt the theatre from the debris that remained from the other buildings, because it was the only building they knew well enough to do it right. Ghosts and restless spirits came like moths to a flame, and in the sad violins and minor keys of the time, the troupe kindled that flame, and raised their broods, and survived, and passed on what they knew and had heard - literally.
The show - must go on
Theatre of Mystery: Scene from "The Masked Stranger"