Theatre Huntsville is running the very enjoyable murder-mystery comedy, The Game’s Afoot, through next weekend at the Von Braun Center Playhouse. It’s a “whodunit”, with a comedic feel, and a touch of history, and is well worth the time to see it. The plot is based around a famous actor, William Gillette, currently starring in a production of Sherlock Holmes, inviting some of his cast to enjoy the Christmas holiday at his castle in Connecticut. The play starts with a bit of a mystery to be solved, and the situation degenerates as the bodies pile up, all of which is humorously investigated by the local police detective, and Gillette, who has apparently been playing Holmes a bit too long.
The truly fun backstory to this play is that William Gillette is a real, historical person, whose main claim to fame is effectively the creation of the stage (and thus film) version of Sherlock Holmes we all know. After securing the rights to staging the character, directly from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette wrote the script himself, and then played the role more than 1300 times over the next 30 years. It was Gillette who gave Holmes the curved pipe, and coined the complete phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow”. For several generations, Gillette WAS Sherlock, with his image being used as the picture of Holmes for many of Conan Doyle’s later Sherlock stories. Gillette is a fascinating, famous person in his own right, and aside from holding a handful of patents, is also credited with bringing the first all-American theatre production to the U.K which received any respect from audiences there. Additionally, the setting for this play, Gillette’s castle, still exists, and is now the centerpiece of a state park. That said, this script doesn’t stick THAT tightly to history, and the timelines don’t match up at all. It’s not an issue for the audience, but don’t take this play as any sort of real history lesson.
This production by Theatre Huntsville is a lot of fun, and a great evening at the theatre. The direction by Josh Phillips, is quite well done. His staging and blocking are solid throughout, and most of the characters and relationships he shaped are interesting and entertaining. The suspense and mystery is maintained with solid pacing, and the humor is well-handled. It would have been easy, with this production, to take the comedy all the way into farce, but Phillips walks the line very nicely, keeping it as funny as it can be, without going so far that it becomes unrealistic. The technical elements are generally quite good, including a few neat special effects.
Christopher Kelly Carter, as “William Gillette”, is incredible, as always. He plays Holmes like a leading man, and Gillette like a character actor. George Kobler, as “Felix”, Gillette’s best friend, turns in another solid performance. He not only hits his own moments with skill, but once again shows his matchless skill as a giving, sharing, scene partner. Jacinda Rose Swinehart, as “Inspector Goring”, practically steals the show in the second act, creating a fascinating, wonderful, distinctive character. Claire Crenshaw, does a really nice job as “Daria”, the theatre critic. Even though the part was clearly written for someone ten to twenty years older, that’s only noticeable during a few lines which refer to the character’s age. Ignoring that, Crenshaw does really well with this witty, biting character. Lorie Hubscher, as Felix’s wife, “Madge”, and Cher Piette, as Gillette’s mother, “Martha”, both turn in solid performances. Heidi Crane, as the ingenue of Gillette’s company, “Aggie”, lacks some of the connection she should have to various other characters (I don’t want to give spoilers), but still does a nice job handling a very difficult, and multi-layered character. John Coleman, as the young character actor of Gillette’s company, “Simon”, doesn’t quite pull off the goofy persona that’s needed for the role, but is still a solid member of the company. Overall, this is a very good ensemble, and their level of comfort with each other and the material, is at a high level, and the audience is able to just relax and enjoy the performances.
The technical elements are generally quite good, but there are a few exceptions. The set, by Kevin McDougal, borders on the phenomenal. The two story-high walls, split-level stair case, and multiple entrances, are solidly constructed and provide a great backdrop for the performance. If they can get the rather important bookcase/bar feature to ever work right, it will be a truly impressive set. Sabian Bush, responsible for the show’s many sound effects, does a solid job, hitting his cues on the mark, and generally balancing the levels very well. The use of drop mics from the ceiling, rather than body mics, made for a much more natural-sounding production than usual. Suzi Noble’s costumes are quite nice for the production, and generally capture the period and characters quite well. Two of the women are wearing shoes that are very much not appropriate for the 30’s, and it’s puzzling that “Gillette/Sherlock” has a beard, but otherwise, it’s a job well done. The un-credited Cynthia Meyer does a really nice job with the lighting, providing some great changes and lightning effects that ably support the production. Occasionally, the choice was made to dim some of the lights to localize attention to a small portion of the stage, and unfortunately these light changes could be a little more subtle, but otherwise, the lighting cues and levels were spot on. The prop design, largely created by the uncredited Tara Ferguson, are quite good, though the staging of the bunsen burner effect, makes the “gas cord” read more like a power cord for the electricity, and borders on a trip hazard for the actors. With the exception of the bookcase/bar, all the technical issues are really minor, and the tech overall does a very nice job of supporting the production.
The Game’s Afoot is a solid show, and a very enjoyable evening of theatre. Performances continue through next Saturday, 17 September, at the Von Braun Center Playhouse. Show times and ticket information can be found here.
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