The University Theatre’s production of “The Game’s Afoot” combines mystery and farce for a knee-slapping laugh fest that will intrigue and amuse audiences of all ages.
Ken Ludwig’s play is set in the 1936 castle of real-life Broadway star, William Gillette. On Christmas Eve, Gillette dons Sherlock Holmes apparel and enlists invited theatre-related guests to help him solve a murder. Or is it two murders?
The solution to these and other mysteries is revealed after a merry chase around the country manor featuring all of the elements of the perfect thriller: bodies lying about, thunder and lightning, a séance, screams in the dark and deeds with malice aforethought.
What makes this production a marvelous piece of comic theatre is the cast’s flawless execution of elaborate physical business and their delivery of Ludwig’s witty rapid-fire banter. Highlights of the evening are the acrobatic efforts and agility of Gillette, played by Garrett McCord, and Felix, played by Mitch Sowers, to keep a presumably dead body in a closet and out of sight.
Similarly, Sebastiana Gullo as Aggie and Nathan VanAtta as Simon, consummate their recent marriage with a bout of visceral, painful and hilarious stage combat. Split-second timing is key here to executing business that is both believable and funny.
The vocal agility of The University Theatre cast plays a large role in their success. Gossip columnist, critic and medium, Daria Chase, played by Sarah Quigley, dominates the first act conversation with an onslaught of barbed remarks and biting put downs. Similarly the ditzy frizzy-haired Inspector Goring, played by Sarah Neumann, controls her Act Two investigation with startling statements and a barrage of curious quotes from Shakespeare.
Near the play’s conclusion, Madge, confidently portrayed by Annaliese Romans, and actors Sowers and McCord, as Gillette in the Sherlock Holmes persona, offer an elaborate explanation and apparent solution for the puzzle that plagues the holiday festivities.
The trio’s deductions, delivered at break-neck pace and trippingly on the tongue are clear, logical, and plausible. They’re also marvelously incorrect. And that’s the beauty of a verbal or physical pratfall in a Ken Ludwig play. He takes great joy in pulling out the rug from underneath those who stand on logic and certainty.
Central to Ludwig’s topsy-turvy value system are eccentric characters who are never quite what they seem to be. Sarah Stiner, as Martha, Gillette’s kindly gray-haired mother, is delightful as she defies conventional expectations in this role. Director Mark Liermann’s lucid stage pictures help tell a story full of surprises.
Supporting the effort is designer Dave Sobe’s country castle, featuring revolving hidden rooms, circulating electric trains, falling snow outside, and a variety of doors and openings. Sobe’s set provides the proper playground for Gillette’s detective “games” and serves as platform for the elaborate gags, knock-down drag-out fights, and sudden appearances in Ludwig’s script.
These scenic elements along with first-rate performances help make “The Game’s Afoot” or “Holmes for the Holidays” good theatre and an excellent choice for pre-holiday entertainment.