Participants walk from the loading dock area of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts during Art Heist, an immersive theater experience. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Who wants to win $10 million?

If that amount sounds like a suitable reward for solving one of the world’s most confounding cases, bring your magnifying glass, a smartphone, and your investigative chops to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts between Oct. 16 and Nov. 1.

Art Heist, described as “a true crime walking theatre show,” presents a real-life mystery focused on catching the culprit behind the 1990 theft of 13 precious artworks by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others, from the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Ticketed attendees will assemble in front of the Tobin Center’s grand entrance, greeted by “experts” who will explain the scenario to the socially distanced group, then lead them in a slow amble around the grounds of the performance hall to meet the five primary suspects in the case.

Performer Melissa Marlowe introduces herself to the audience of nearly 30 amateur detectives participating in Art Heist. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Thursday evening, performer Melissa Marlowe introduced herself to the crowd of nearly 30 eager amateur detectives. She said throughout the evening, she would be channeling the personage of Harold Smith, an insurance investigator noted for recovering stolen art, and that attendees were her class of new FBI recruits charged with choosing the most likely suspect.  

Plentiful preparatory information is given, with further clues available via QR codes printed on a brochure handed to each participant at check-in. Participants will have to doff their fedoras for a temperature check before participating.

The play makes clever use of the Tobin Center environs, suddenly turned seedy on a gusty autumn night. The first suspect, 23-year-old museum guard Rick Abath played by Sarah Gosgrove, paces the loading dock explaining how the theft happened the night of his final shift at the Gardner. Abath was known to host secret late-night parties in the museum, and drugs might or might not have been involved.

An actor portraying one of the suspects, 23-year-old museum guard Rick Abath played by Sarah Cosgrove, paces the loading dock explaining how the theft happened the night of his final shift. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Next, the group visits George Reissfelder, an odd duck in rubber boots half-submerged in the water of the river boat ramp just behind the Tobin.

Generous time for questions is allowed at each stop, with characters responsive to the pestering of ambitious sleuths keen on solving the crime.

“What’s the deal with your haircut?” asked one attendee through her mask.

Reissfelder’s notorious bowl cut was obscured in this case by a knit beanie worn by actor Greg Hinojosa, who explained that during his 16 years in prison on robbery and murder convictions, the simple style was easy to maintain. Reissfelder was exonerated – with the help of then-defense attorney John Kerry, later a U. S. Senator and presidential candidate – and released in 1982.

Such facts made the Art Heist experience fun and informative for Lydia Perez and Ryan Wallace, who got tickets from a friend who couldn’t make the show. Perez said she’d never participated in a theatrical murder mystery before, but Wallace had gone to a murder mystery event at the Dallas Museum of Art a few years back.

Both said they were less concerned about solving the crime than simply enjoying the experience. Perez said she’s a fan of the Unsolved Mysteries television show, while Wallace couldn’t recall whether the crime was solved at the art museum, noting “I was just there having fun.”

The two followed the troupe of recruits to the Will Naylor Smith River Walk Plaza to be briefed on the next suspect, a career criminal named David Turner who had taken up gardening after a 20-year prison stint.

Turner, played by actor Jordan Peña, was on a ladder tending to a planter just outside the Hotel Havana on Auditorium Circle. He mostly fended off suggestions that he might have done the crime, though he was evasive about how he had seven years shaved off his sentence.

“I was a model prisoner,” he said. “I did what I was told, I took classes, I volunteered. It was good.” Suspiciously, though, Turner and Reissfelder knew each other.

Suspect Brian McDevitt, played as a salty-mouthed lout by Georgette Lockwood, might or might not have been dead in his appearance to the FBI recruiting class. Clever shifts in space, time, gender, and age throughout the play allow such access to the personalities behind the crime at its heart.

Suspect Brian McDevitt is played as a salty-mouthed lout by Georgette Lockwood. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Though McDevitt’s girlfriend gave him an alibi, after the heist he suspiciously absconded to South America, always to countries that had no extradition treaties with the U.S.

Finally, the troupe wound around the Navarro Street curve to meet Myles Connor Jr., the self-proclaimed greatest art thief in the world. Connor was in a California prison at the time of the heist, but was suspected of directing crimes from his cell.

The ornate iron entrance gates to the Tobin Center’s adjacent administrative building served as cell bars for the orange-suited Connor, played by actor and one time Overtime Theater director Rob Barron. As Connor, he made sure attendees were aware that he had talked about a couple objects in the Gardner collection that he found attractive, though they held little value.

After gathering all available evidence, the troupe assembled outside near the Carlos Alvarez Theater entrance to hash out their theories under the guidance of Harold Smith. The process ends with a vote on whom the group finds the most likely suspect, to recommend to the FBI for closer investigation.

Though the recommendation is fictional, the $10 million reward is real. Trustees of the Gardner are still in pursuit of the artworks, uninsured at the time of the theft and worth an estimated $500 million.

Over 30 years much investigation has gone into the case by professionals and amateurs alike, and the Art Heist brochure points to podcasts, books, and documentaries exploring the elusive solution to the crime.

The ornate iron entrance gates to the Tobin Center’s adjacent administrative building served as cell bars for the orange-suited Myles Connor Jr., played by actor Rob Barron. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Rick Frederick, Tobin Center director of resident companies and community engagement, said the idea for the “adaptive, immersive theater” event originated at the Vancouver Fringe Festival as a solution to how theater might be performed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Thoughtful use of outdoor spaces, a socially distanced audience, and required face coverings all contribute to safety for the participants, while strict protocols inside the Tobin Center keep actors and staff safe, including dedicated dressing rooms for each actor, sanitized after each use as multiple actors are rotated through each evening’s five performances. As production coordinator for the play, Frederick cast San Antonio actors for each role. Many will be familiar to fans of local theater.

The logistics of managing the play’s busy schedule might be as boggling as the mystery of the heist, Frederick said. Art Heist runs five performances per night on weeknights and eight performances each on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are available on the Tobin Center website.

Audiences are limited to 35 people for each performance, though on Thursday evening one group had two members, which Frederick said made the experience even more intimate and engaging.

In the larger group, attendees Pamela Garza and Rebecca Munõz came to different conclusions. Garza chose Connor as the jailed ringleader of what she called “some wild conspiracy” that also incriminated Turner.

Muñoz chose Turner, whom she surmised as possessing a key piece of “hard evidence.”

As to who the final tally pointed to as the chief suspect Thursday night, that information will remain a mystery.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...