By Paul Love
Sherlock Holmes, according to the Guinness World Records, is the most portrayed character in the history of film, television, and stage combined. That’s a lot of built-up history to take on when you decide to create a new Holmes story. In 2012, Ken Ludwig, of Moon Over Buffalo and Crazy for You fame, decided to do just that. But instead of following the straight-up drama formula so often used with Sherlock Holmes, he chose to create a mystery-comedy, and called it THE GAME’S AFOOT; OR HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS.
Ajax Community Theatre is currently staging this enjoyable production at the St. Francis Centre in Ajax. THE GAME’S AFOOT is a fictional story about a real person. William Gillette was a Broadway star who loved playing Sherlock Holmes so much that in the early 1900s, with the blessing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,he wrote a new Holmes play that was such a smash success that Gillette went on to perform it for decades.
THE GAME’S AFOOT begins, surprisingly, with an ending — the ending of a performance of Gillette’s play. The actors’ purposely hammy performance of these final few moments of the play-within-the-play have a wonderful over-the-top quality reminiscent of what you would see in the films of that era. It makes you wish you could view this production in its entirety. During the curtain call for Gillette’s play, an unseen attacker shoots Gillette, and everyone rushes to his side amid the well-staged chaos. The remainder of the play takes place at the Gillette mansion in Connectiut on Christmas Eve, where Gillette has invited his cast-mates for a party, but with a hidden agenda.
The scene opens with Gillette’s mother, Martha, rushing around in late preparation for the party. Martha is played by Jackie Del Greco with a sweet delicate grace that is occasionally swept aside in favour of a tenacious mama bear who will protect her cub when she needs to. Filling the shoes of William Gillette is no easy task, but Craig Martin does it quite deftly, presenting us a complicated man who is world-weary yet still has a burning passion for theatre, his friends and family, and his beloved Holmes. Martin, dressed splendidly by costumiers Judy Dee and Kathlyn Angelo, not only bears a striking resemblance to Clark Gable, but he carries off his performance with all the wit and charm of Gable and his ilk. We don’t see much change in his character when he dons Holmes’ famous cloak and deerstalker cap, but that seems to be the point: after embracing and portraying a character for so long, the persona of the actor and that of the character eventually get lost in one another.
Adding to the mystery are Gillette’s guests — the cast of his long-running show. The cast and Ludwig give us an amusing insight into the way actors behave at social events — at times awkward and quiet, and at other times breaking into pieces of performance they have been embedded in their souls over the years. Mark Salonius is wonderfully bombastic as Felix Geisel, a loud, Shakespeare-quoting force of nature who will go to great lengths (and does so with some wonderful physical comedy) to help his friends. Always keeping Felix in check is his wife, Madge, played by Sarah-Liis Salonius with a hilarious eyes-that-shoot-daggers ferocity that plays well against the positive energy of the other characters. Aggie Wheeler, the young ingenue with a tragic past, is portrayed with a bright yet well-grounded spirit by Amber Dawn Vibert, who says so much with a mere facial expression. Dillon Hunter gives us the sweaty, awkward eagerness of young, up-and-coming actor Simon Bright, presenting a character that is both funny and relatable. Rounding out the cast is Rebecca Kingdon as Inspector Goring whom Kingdon plays with a wonderfully controlled effervescence that occasionally forces its way out to comedic effect. And finally, there is theatre critic and gossip-monger Daria Chase, played with venomous zeal by Catherine Speiran.
Though the production had a few glitches (doors that didn’t work properly, moments where stage hands could be seen), it excelled technically in many ways (thunderstorm sound and light cues were effective but not overwhelming, and the newsreel video was very well done).
Overall, the play was well-paced and well-performed. It’s not easy to fill your audience with mystery one minute and make them laugh out loud the next, but the cast of THE GAME’S AFOOT pulled it off nicely. If you’re in the mood for some solid comedy mixed with a bit of mystery and intrigue, check out Ajax Community Theatre’s production of THE GAME’S AFOOT before it’s gone. Remaining performances are November 23rd, 24th, and 25th.