Tally ho! The spirit of Sherlock has arrived! The Game’s Afoot has settled down at The Salem Players just in time to be appropriately referred to as ‘Holmes for the Holidays.’ A romping good murder mystery with a comic edge that will cut you to the quick, this Ken Ludwig play has all the elements of humor and suspense twined together in a neat little parcel; the perfect way to spend an evening at the theatre. Directed by Damien Gibbons, it’s a murder mystery that will have you laughing until you expire!
Serving as the show’s Set Designer, Gibbons situates the living room of the Gillette estate in a most posh and polished fashion. The rich burgundy wallpaper and green undertones beneath it transport the audience back to a classy time in the mid ‘30’s with a sense of New England’s aristocratic flare. The same can be said of Costume Designer Jenifer Grundy Hollett’s work in outfitting the cast to the era. With flamboyantly overdone costumes for the ‘play-within-a-play’ scene and fancy evening frippery for the ladies once they arrive at the Gillette estate, there’s nothing amiss in her design work. Everyone is in their dazzling evening best; even the outlandish gold and black number saved for the fiery theatre critic fits the bill of 1930’s fashion.
Director Damien Gibbons keeps the production moving, a key component of a successful murder mystery, even if this one is packed full of hysterical moments and farcical elements. The suspense; albeit overshadowed by humor; builds in all the right moments making you puzzle and wonder over just what crime we’re investigating and who might have committed it. Gibbons also ensures that the cast has a flawless working chemistry among them, be it varying lovers, strained familial relations, or just bickering and quibbling in general when the party begins to break down. The moments of comedy wend themselves seamlessly into the scenes; a rare treat in an otherwise dark suspense-style thriller.
The relationships that form in this cast are sensational; each character playing out their part to the letter in this whacky mystery. Lovers quarrels, and mothers that cause problems; all wrapped up in the tight-knit friendship of a troupe of actors. The level of emotional clarity and expressiveness that they bring to the show makes it a much more dynamic experience, and keeps the show moving to its rather hilarious, albeit bizarre, conclusion.
Not arriving until the game is in full swing, Inspector Goring (Jenifer Grundy Hollett) slips onto the scene in her Scotland Yard finest; the iconic brown detective’s uniform and bubbly nature to boot. Hollett adapts a British accent by way of New England that adds a hint of comedy to her already quirky character and her larger than life cheery disposition is enough to set anyone on edge, even the murderer. Interacting brilliantly with the other characters, especially the quack that believes himself to be Holmes, Hollett brings a binding force of reason to the mayhem unfolding at the mansion.
Aggie Wheeler (Shealyn Jae), the heiress apparent, and her paramour Simon (Chris Carothers) have quite the little emotional tiff. Jae plays jealousy with a passionate flare, really spitting bitter daggers at Carothers during scenes where they fight. Carothers does an excellent job of delivering subtle one-liners, particularly when mocking Daria Chase, the arrogant theatre critic whose arrival is heralded by none.
The aforementioned theatre critic, played by the exceptionally talented Ashley Gerhardt, is a true scene stealer. From the moment Gerhardt storms onto the stage all eyes are on her, if not for her garish black and gold dress, for her fierce commanding stage presence. Her haughty air with that phony saccharine approach to befriending people is grating and every word that leaves her lips is terrifyingly superficial. She masters this disgusting role and then turns it on its head creating a rich dynamic depth to the character. Gerhardt erupts into a flurry of pure fury, her tongue a visceral knife that cuts to the quick by the end of act I; a stunning performance that really steals the thunder straight out of the stormy sky.
Holding his own spastic nature against the viperous critic is Felix (Ed Hoffman). This ‘he-man’ of comedy really gets his physical slapstick noticed when he starts mucking about at the top of Act II. Hoffman is wildly animated, not only in his facial features but in his vocal expressions as well. Having complete spastic eruptions at his wife Madge (Suzanne Young) adds to the humor of his character. Young barbs right back at him, matching his intensity and showing her true colors as they play goes on. The pair have a versatile chemistry to their relationship, harsh and volatile at first but simpering and sweet as the play progresses. Hoffman also saves some of his exasperation for William Gillette (Marc Rehr) brilliant moments of uproarious arguments arising from their butting heads.
Rehr, as the potentially senile ‘detective’ has a way of blustering about the stage while simultaneously remaining calm even in the most awkward of situations. His responses, particularly frozen moments of facial disbelief, to Felix are priceless. The situations Rehr finds himself in, which I cannot divulge further without giving away key points of the fantastic plot, are to die for, and you’ll find that he’s the right man for the job.
Let’s not forget dear old mother, Martha (Marge Ricci). A too funny character that really knows how to insinuate herself into all the wrong, and sometimes the right, situations. Ricci plays dotty as well as she plays sassy; a delicate juxtaposition between ‘mother-knows-best’ and ‘senile-old-lady.’ A rousing good performance, though her stage time is brief, makes this a well-rounded comedy.
Life is a game, the most glorious game, the biggest adventure, in fact. And The Salem Players wants to invite you to roll the dice, hold the cards, and gamble along with them as they take the next big leap with this zany performance; you’ll be sorry you missed The Game’s Afoot, so make sure that you don’t!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
The Game’s Afoot (Holmes for the Holidays) plays through November 17, 2013 at The Salem Players at The Salem Lutheran Church – 905 Frederick Road, in Catonsville, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 747-0720, or purchase them online.