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The Game's Afoot for the Holidays at the Cleveland Play House

Ken Ludwig's "The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays)," directed by Aaron Posner, is on stage in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare, now - December 24, 2011.

A triple murder and assassination attempt may not be the first things that come to mind when I think about the holidays. However, the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays) at Cleveland Play House is a hilarious, quirky and thrilling alternative to your standard holiday entertainment.

The Game’s Afoot opens with a performance of one of William Gillette’s famous Sherlock Holmes adaptations. As the cast takes their bows and the playwright-slash-actor wishes the audience a happy holiday, a gun rings out in the theatre and Gillette is shot.

Not one to let an assassination attempt ruin his holidays, Gillette gathers his co-stars to his lavish Connecticut mansion for a Christmas Eve celebration. 

After tragedy strikes again, Gillette picks up the curved pipe (which – thanks to him – would become synonymous with the character) and sets to work solving the crime as only Sherlock would do.

The Cleveland Play House’s holiday production is a world premiere. Written by Ken Ludwig (of Lend me a Tenor fame), The Game’s Afoot is inspired by the real life William Gillette – the man who brought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective from page to stage, paving the way for the likes of Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Jr. and many other actors.

Random Sherlock Holmes trivia: it was Gillette – not Sir Arthur – that we can thank for the origins of the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” after he wrote “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.”

William Gillette (Donald Sage Mackay in The Game's Afoot) is famous for portraying "Sherlock Holmes" on stage. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

In addition to being a renowned actor, writer, producer and inventor, Gillette was also a bit of an eccentric – much like the character he performed on stage 1300 times. With the money from his productions, Gillette built his retirement home, what is now called “Gillette’s Castle” in East Haddam, Connecticut.

The twenty four room stone mansion was considered by some as his greatest creation; others called it “Gillette’s folly.” From the hand-carved puzzle locks on the outside of all the doors to a 3 mile train track that runs throughout the house to a mirrored surveillance system that allowed Gillette to monitor what was going on at any point in the mansion, I think it sounds amazing and Scott and I already plan to visit it when we’re in Connecticut for a wedding this April.  

Cleveland has the distinct honor of originating this play. Over the course of the play’s rehersal period in Cleveland, Ludwig penned 9 versions of the script, which after working with Director Aaron Posner, the cast, crew and staff of the Cleveland Play House, resulted in a hilarious sendup of murder mysteries that kept me guessing until the very last scene.  

William Gillette and his cast of "Sherlock Holmes" discover a clue. Pictured from left: Patricia Kilgarriff, Lise Bruneau, Eric Hissom, Donald Sage Mackay, Rob McClure, Mattie Hawkinson. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

While a lot of this success can be attributed to Ludwig’s well-honed script and Posner’s directing, much of the credit is due to the actors. 

It’s rare to be able to honestly say an entire production is perfectly cast. Many times there’s at least one actor who may have a mis-step or not shine as brightly as the others. However, in Game’s Afoot, every single actor who steps on the stage seems custom fit for their role.

Donald Sage Mackey has the difficulty of portraying the larger than life William Gillette as he bounces between his own real life idiosyncracies and the persona of his Sherlock Holmes role. 

While those many levels can be a daunting task for an actor, Mackey accomplishes this without turning his portrayal into a caricature. 

He walks the line of creative eccentric and paranoid madman. Although he was the protagonist of the play, I’ll admit there were a few moments where I questioned even his innocence.

Murder most foul! Aggie (right, Mattie Hawkinson) screams when Daria (Erika Rolfsrud) grabs her in "The Game's Afoot." Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

That was really one of the things I loved about the cast in this play.  Each actor did such a great job of balancing laugh-out-loud levity with subtle moments of menace that no one is above suspicion in the madcap murder mystery.

Eric Hissom and Lise Bruneau play Felix and Madge Geisel, veteran actors and long-time friends of Gillette. You’re often left wondering, though, whether their trouble in paradise is enough to lead to murder or if Felix has taken too much to his onstage role of the conniving Moriarty.

Mattie Hawkinson plays Aggie Wheeler — the young ingenue of Gillette’s acting troupe and an unfortunate widow after her husband’s skiing accident. And Rob McClure plays the bumbling Simon Bright, the helpful friend-turned-lover to Aggie, who was there to pick up the pieces after her husband died. Is their bright-eyed innocence all an act or are they just pawns in someone else’s game? (insert melodramatic sound cue here!)

And then you can’t forget Erika Rolfsrud’s Daria Chase (the vindictive, and slightly crazy, theatre critic that Gillette invites to his house for an interview); Patricia Kilgarriff’s Martha Gillette (Gillette’s loving, overprotective and slightly crazy mother); and Sarah Day’s Inspector Harriet Goring (the theatre-obsessed – and yes, slightly crazy – detective called to the house to investigate a crime).

William Gillette (left, Donald Sage Mackay) takes on his "Sherlock Holmes" persona when trying to solve the mystery with Inspector Goring (Sarah Day). Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

While there were rightfully a lot of moments of over-the-top comedy, the writing, direction and acting managed to also get plenty of laughs from its quieter turns.  I think I laughed the hardest at McClure’s reactions to Daria Chase’s seance skills – without any words he had me in stitches.    

Also, if you’re a fan of mystery tropes, watching Inspector Goring – a Miss Marple-esque “lady detective” complete with the tweed outfit and flighty demeanor – pair up with the Holmes-obsessed Gillette was a dream come true.  As Scott called it, the loving parody was the “Shaun of the Dead of murder mysteries.”  

With all of this love for the acting, I don’t want to downplay the technical aspects of the production. Because the play is set in Gillette’s famous mansion, the designer Daniel Conway and all of the scenic artists had a huge undertaking in front of them. In fact, this is one of those instances where the setting becomes its own character with all of its hidden passageways and nuances.

I think that the audience reaction on opening night says enough about how beautifully the final product turned out. As the curtains opened on the fully realized interior of Gillette’s house, a gasp of awe followed by a long applause erupted from everyone.

The set is the largest seen on a CPH stage in over a decade. They replicated the beautiful stonework  and wood beams, Gillette’s many disguised rooms and endearingly bizarre touches.

The magnificent set of Gillette's castle wowed the audience at Cleveland Play House's The Games Afoot. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

The Game’s Afoot is the perfect gift for the holidays. Not only is it a fantastically fun night out at the theatre (with enough seasonal overtones to qualify it as holiday fare), but also, as a world premiere, future productions will have Cleveland Play House’s name on it as the first place it played.

It’s something we can be proud of as a city and another reminder why Cleveland’s arts are one of our greatest gifts.  

Due to its popularity, the run for The Game’s Afoot has been extended until December 24th. Purchase tickets here for all performances. 

Young professionals can also take advantage of the Cleveland Play House’s Gen.NOW series tomorrow Dec. 6. For $20, Clevelanders in their 20s and 30s can get a ticket to the show, admission to a pre-show happy hour with free heavy appetizers and 1/2 price drink specials, and an after-show discussion with the cast.

Happy Homicide!

The Game’s Afoot / The Cleveland Play House 411:

Disclosure: I was provided 2 media passes to see The Game’s Afoot; however, my opinions on the production are 100% my own