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Entertaining, riotously funny and sometimes it’s a scream

By Mary Hembree, Citizen News


"Of course she's evil–she's a theater critic." – Martha Gillette

A castle.  Christmas Eve.  Murder.  Rubbing my hands together I smile.  The Games Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays is my kind of play!

Ken Ludwig is an American playwright and theater director whose works have been performed all over the world.  His first Broadway play, Lend Me a Tenor (1989) won three Tony Awards. The Games Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays is Ludwig's farcical comedy-mystery focused around the actor William Gillette who originated the role of Sherlock Holmes.  It won the 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best play.

William Hooker Gillette was an American actor, playwright and stage-manager in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best remembered for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage. His use of the deerstalker cap and the curved pipe became the symbols of the Holmes character.   

The play opens in the living room of the Gillette castle on the Connecticut River near East Haddam, Connecticut.  It's Christmas Eve and Gillette has invited his fellow actors over to celebrate the holiday and stay the evening.  His mother, Martha is also in residence.

The set is a masterpiece of design and engineering.  You can almost feel the chill in the castle.  All the "ahead-of-his-time" gadgets William Gillette would have are present – an intercom between rooms and the outside gate, and a recording device that allows him to eavesdrop on his friends and guests.  The room is authentic right down to the statue of the Remington Pony Express Rider on the book shelf.  But the piece de resistance, and critical to the play, is the revolving bar operated by a lever on the wall.

William Gillette is entertaining his actor friends this Christmas Eve, and there are surprises in store for everyone.  Looking dapper in his tuxedo Charles Schoenfeld moves throughout the play with the grace of Fred Astaire.  Despite his curious and mysterious bio, Mr. Schoenfeld embodies the character of William Gillette as well as the persona of Sherlock Holmes bearing a striking resemblance.  As William Gillette he channels Holmes in his everyday life and looks forward to entertaining his guests, engaging them to help him solve a mystery.  It's an evening I would love to be a part of with everything from champagne in saucer glasses to a séance to….well I'll stop there as I don't want to give you any clues to "whodunit."  Mr. Schoenfeld's performance is debonair and he is the gifted host of the show. 

Not many people can pull off wearing a tiara, even in 1936, but Mary Wilson does it with aplomb.  She portrays Martha Gillette as the flighty sometimes distressed woman that she is but there's a bit of a wink underneath letting you know all the gears in her head are working.   A vivacious, clever performance.

This entire cast is lovable but I have to say Felix Geisel stole my heart.  Every time he walked onstage my face drew up in a smile.  Frank Arcaro as Felix brings comedic timing to new heights with a performance that is classic slapstick perfection.

Paired like a match made in heaven, I can't imagine anyone other than M. J. Hartell as Felix's wife Madge.   They are a riotous blend of humor, wit and laughable indignation.  Madge is an actress and delights in the chance to be in on the joke.  Ms. Hartell is sterling in this role and made me wish I could be at the party with her!

Sporting a white dinner jacket, Simon Bright is suave and sophisticated with a sprinkling of smug.  He's not as demonstrative as his fellow actors and friends.  He's off to the side absently perusing a book or handling an object d'art.  He would have us believe he's removed.  James Hipp is foolproof in this role.  He has the ability to deftly convey what he's thinking just by raising an eyebrow or slightly tilting his head.  This is a subtle performance, keenly delivered, complementing the other actors impressively.

Reesa Roccapriore is natural on stage.  She wraps her character, Aggie Wheeler, in the polite sweetness of a young woman in 1936, but with enough spirit to keep her fun and interesting.  Aggie's had a rough time in the past year and Ms. Roccapriore adeptly reveals what lies beneath the surface.

The role description for Daria Chase, the theatre critic we love to hate, states: "the actress must have wonderful comic timing and be a skilled physical comedian."  Enter Robyn Maitland whose sheer presence on stage is commanding.  She is biting and bitchy, verbally slicing up the guests at the party as though they were performing on stage.  Yet…we just can't hate her, the acting is too good. Ms. Maitland is a statuesque woman with the uncanny ability to go limp and allow herself to be folded in half.  A skilled physical comedian indeed!

Inspector Harriet Goring arrives late in the play and you'll find out why.  Janice Conner is refreshing giving a performance that is witty and a bit wild.  Ms. Conner's movements are kooky complimenting the eccentric nature of her Inspector Goring beautifully. 

Granted Glenn R. Couture had an impeccable cast to work with but timing is crucial in this play.  Like a brilliant ringmaster he has elicited consummate performances from each of these actors resulting in a play that is exceptionally well done.  Bravo!

The Games Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays is ultimately entertaining, riotously funny and sometimes it's a scream. 

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