Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Minstrel Players' production of The Game's Afoot at Trinity Episcopal Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Minstrel Players' production of "The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays" by Ken Ludwig at Trinity Episcopal Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays
The Minstrel Players
Houghton Hall
Trinity Episcopal Church (130 Main Street, Northport Village, NY)
Reviewed 10/26/14

The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays was written by Ken Ludwig, a prolific American playwright best known for his Broadway productions of Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You and Moon Over Buffalo. His work has been performed in 30 countries and in over 20 languages. The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays premiered at the Cleveland Play House in November 2011. It won the 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Play. The boasting rights for having produced the Long Island Premier of The Game's Afoot, to my knowledge, goes to The Heights Players, who opened the show on October 10, 2014. However, this production by The Minstrel Players does appear to be the Suffolk County premier of the play. The famous phrase "The Game Is Afoot" was first uttered in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure Of The Abbey Grange when Sherlock Holmes tells Watson: "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!" But the origin of "The Game's Afoot" in literature actually dates back to William Shakespeare's King Henry V where in Act 3, Scene 1, the King gives his soldiers the rousing speech that begins with the line, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" and ends "And you, good yeoman, Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture; let us swear That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; For there is none of you so mean and base, That hath not noble lustre in your eyes, I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

The main character in The Game's Afoot is William Hooker Gillette, who is hosting a Christmas Eve party at his home, the Gillette Castle,  in 1936. William Gillette, in real life, was an American actor and playwright (who died on April 29, 1937) best remembered for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage more than 1300 times over a period of 30 years. His portrayal of Holmes helped create the modern image of the detective. His use of the deerstalker cap and curved pipe became durable symbols of the character Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Gillette Castle, completed by William Gillette in 1919 at a cost of 1.1 million dollars is located on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, Connecticut. In this play, written by Ken Ludwig, William Gillette invites some recent cast members to his house along with a critic, Daria Chase, who is writing a feature article on him for Vanity Fair. William Gillette fancies himself to be a real life Sherlock Holmes and maintains a laboratory and recording equipment in his home. His real motivation for hosting the party is to try to discover who recently made an attempt on his life, and later, he tries to find out who allegedly killed Daria Chase, the evil theatre critic.

Ken Ludwig has no idea how to write a play in this genre. The Game's Afoot is derivative drivel that cheats and misleads the audience at every turn. A legitimate who-did-it murder mystery sets out clues, gives many of the characters possible motives, and invites the audience to try to solve the murder perhaps providing a surprising ending that leaves people feeling astonished and satisfied. That does not happen in this play. In The Game's Afoot, our Sherlock Holmes character wipes the murder weapon clean of fingerprints and calls the police before starting his investigation. William Gillette and his friend Felix Geisel both have no idea how to take a pulse and haven't a clue as to whether Daria Chase is alive or dead although Gillette has no problem definitely declaring "She's..." at the end of the First Act and "Dead" as the first word of the Second Act. Even the attempt on William Gillette's life is revealed in the end to just have been bad aiming on the part of the assassin, which is something an amateur sleuth in the audience could not anticipate and provides facts outside of those someone would normally consider in trying to figure out who did what to whom. By the end of the First Act, it was obvious to everyone that Simon Bright was a money hungry bad guy who probably killed his current wife's ex-husband while they were on their honeymoon in Killington, Vermont and that he was still keeping an old girlfriend on the side. Sure, some facts like the involvement of Simon's current wife Aggie Wheeler, and the fact that Martha Gillette, William's mom, was as mad as a hatter, were unexpected revelations but none that provided the audience with any feeling of fulfillment. 

The best line in the play was uttered by Madge Geisel powerfully played by the very talented Tricia Ieronimo. After the alleged murder of Daria Chase, her character said, "I guess this means we're not exchanging presents tonight." Kevin Kelly played her husband Felix, who cheated on his wife with Daria and possibly with other women as well. Unfortunately, Mr. Kelly did not play the role of Felix straight enough to be a credible heterosexual. I have no idea, nor do I care, what Mr. Kelly's underlying sexual orientation is. However, as a professional actor, he must be believable as the character he is playing. There is no room for affirmative action in a production that is charging the public to attend. If an actor's natural demeanor is to come across as a flaming Queen who appears to be a stereotypical bottom, that actor is not immune from criticism if he lets those traits creep into a performance where they are not appropriate. 

Alicia James hit a home run in the role of Daria Chase. When her character burst onto the scene, we knew we were in the presence of a star. Brian Hartwig surprised me the most in his role as Simon Bright. I can't comment on whether his bathing suit was too loose in a previous production, as Daria Chase seemed to think, but I can say that is this production, he was quite prominent and well-equipped to handle the role. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future. Linda Randolph deftly handled the role of Inspector Goring and Gabriella Stevens more than adequately portrayed Aggie Wheeler. Karen Mercorella succeeded in getting us to hate her character, Martha Gillette. Ray Palen was quite believable as William Gillette and may very well be on the way to fulfilling his goal "to one day be as famous as Gillette himself for playing Conan Doyle's infamous sleuth."

Taking everything into consideration, I still recommend you see The Minstrel Player's production of The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays. You get to experience live theatre at a bargain price and get the opportunity to meet some friendly people. There is a 50-50 raffle, reasonably priced concession items and before or after the play, you can go out to dinner at one of the fine restaurants located in Northport Village. If you have extra time, you can buy some tea, get some home-made ice cream or visit some of the antique stores located on Main Street. Not a bad way to spend a few hours!

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