Review: Bag&Baggage's latest show, 'The Game's Afoot'
Yes, Virginia, there was a William Gillette, and there is a Gillette Castle. That's about where the resemblance to reality ends in Bag&Baggage's utterly hilarious and wildly farcical production of playwright Ken Ludwig's "The Game's Afoot" or "Holmes for the Holidays."
Director Kymberli Colbourne has guided a superb cast to heights of melodrama and beautifully choreographed physical comedy not often seen on local stages, and the entire production team (with special props to scenic designer Shannon Cramer) has created a delightfully meta atmosphere that completely draws the audience into the fun.
The story is based (very loosely) on American actor/playwright William Gillette, whose many stage performances as Sherlock Holmes helped to make the master detective a household name in the United States, as well as creating many of the stereotypes of the Holmesian mythos.
Shortly before Christmas, Gillette is shot in the arm while exiting a theater after a performance. He retreats to his Connecticut lair, the elaborately designed Gillette Castle, to recuperate under the care of his mother, Martha.
Gillette invites his fellow cast members to spend the holidays at his estate — ostensibly just to celebrate, but actually in hopes of using his skills as a master detective (he sometimes confuses himself with the character he plays on stage) to solve the mystery of who shot him.
Using a play-within-a-play format, he tries to uncover the identity of his assailant. Things go awry, despised theater critic Daria Chase turns up with a knife in her back, the classically inept Inspector Goring arrives to investigate, and through a series of tortured plot twists the guests and audience are led to the show's surprise conclusion.
All eight cast members deliver memorable parodies of 1930's stars noir, and the show begins by setting up their performances with a series of appropriately melodramatic film clips.
Andrew Beck's William Gillette is simply wonderful — dry, sardonic and much larger than life — he makes it clear to everyone that he is the star. Arianne Jacques as Aggie Wheeler is the quintessential wide-eyed starlet, whose apparently innocent mien barely masks her ambition. And she absolutely rocks an art deco gown that evokes the top of the Chrysler Building.
The always-exquisite Jessi Walters is delightful as the thoroughly despicable Daria Chase, and she earns every epithet ever thrown at a venomous (if perhaps accurate) critic.
Phillip J. Berns, who plays the charmingly overt social climber Simon Bright, uses his energy and mobile facial expressions to silently comment on the action even when he's far from center stage, and he is thus eminently worth watching.
Speaking of watchable, a cross-dressing Patrick Spike gives Martha Gillette a fabulously campy affect — ludicrously bewigged and attired and clearly having fun portraying a much larger-than-life mother hen.
The action takes place almost exclusively in Gillette's living room, one of the cleverest sets I've seen. Instead of creating the lavish splendor one might expect, designer Shannon Cramer fills the stage with life-sized sketches of the room's design elements, utilizing what appear to be giant chalkboards for crude drawings, augmented by detailed notes.
I particularly liked the giant Victorian Christmas tree and the arrow pointing to a trick latch, but the bookcases augmented by the proposed color palette are no less fun.
"The Game's Afoot" requires elaborate choreography — the characters are constantly executing carefully time entrances and exits, as well as the controlled chaos of a fast-paced environment where actors celebrate, drink, argue, fight and occasionally drag a body (Walters' proficiency at playing dead weight is simply staggering).
Director Colbourne and her cast and crew create one of the funniest Bag&Baggage Christmas shows I've seen, and the company deserves nothing but the full houses they are earning for the run.
Bag&Baggage's "The Game's Afoot" is playing at The Vault, at 350 E. Main St. in Hillsboro, through Dec. 23. However, all shows are currently sold out except for Dec. 19 and 20.
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