REVIEW: "The Game's Afoot"

So, I just got back from Cleveland Heights, and while I was there, I caught a new play by Ken Ludwig. It's a mystery/comedy called The Game's Afoot. If you're a geek, you're probably assuming it's about Sherlock Holmes. If you're a Shakespeare fan, well... you're probably also guessing it's about Sherlock Holmes, but you're wondering if they acknowledge the source of that line. And they do. But anyway, on with the review.

It's a play about William Gillette, the actor, playwright, mogul, and inventor. Specifically, it's about his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had begun to write a stage play, but, being dissatisfied with the quality (as he just plain hated Sherlock Holmes in general by this point), he dropped it. But then William Gillette took it up and adapted it, and brought the character to the stage. It's him who made the deerstalker cap and curved pipe so iconic to the character of Holmes. It also turned Holmes from an icy crime-solving machine into a dashing romanticist... but what the hell, I still prefer it to Basil Rathbone's version (though Jeremy Brett will for me always be the One True Sherlock Holmes).

Oh, and remember how I just called Gillette an inventor? Well, in addition to pioneering new techniques for stage lighting and sound (seriously, read up on the guy), he also built a home out in Connecticut, which housed the first intercom system ever made, a disappearing bar, a system of mirrors that allowed Gillette to view every room in the house from his bedroom, and a three mile-long narrow gauge railroad. Tourists still flock to see the place to this day. I hope to go there myself at some point.

And yes, as you've probably already guessed, "The Game's Afoot" does indeed take place in this house.

And that's where the historical veracity ends... at least I hope.

The Plot: You see, The Game's Afoot is a mystery-comedy in the "life imitates art" subgenre. In this particular formula, someone involved in crime-genre fiction, usually either a mystery writer, or a famous actor who plays a popular fictional detective (and in this particular case, both) finds themselves embroiled in a real-life whodunnit, and must use the detective skills they have learned from their fictional detective, to solve the crimes.

Expect lots of "Lampshade Hanging" (which is TVTropesTalk for: directly pointing out and mentioning common tropes of the genre). And yes, more than once in this play, a character does say to Gillette, "You do realize you're not actually Sherlock Holmes, right?"

And they go all-out with it, as well. The very first scene of this play is actually the very LAST scene of the real Gillette's original Sherlock Holmes play, staged here by the actors playing actors playing characters. And the next scene is them coming out for the curtain call, each bowing (and the audience applauded as they always do during curtain calls), and "Gillette" addresses the audience as though it was actually the closing... and then, well, the plot begins.

(one interesting thing, is that usually each entry in this subgenre invents its own fictional writer and metafictional detective to solve the crimes, rather than actually purporting to be about a specific mystery writer/actor, and a specific fictional detective the person emulates. I wonder what Gillette's estate has to say about this... presumably Ludwig and his entourage got permission, but still...)

The Mystery: As for what they do with the formula? Well, it doesn't exactly bring something new to the subgenre. Once the novelty of the "This is just like that book/movie!" thing wears off, it becomes pretty much a regular whodunnit... though a very well-executed one. But there is one thing they added, that I'm not sure was intentional:

In most whodunnits, once a possible suspect/motive combo is identified, you just look at the running time or page count, and if it's less than 3/4 of the way through the story, you know it's a red herring, and it will be dropped and be irrelevant. Well, in this play, one of the red herrings does actually pan out. One that I had already dismissed as too obvious, and the characters had urged me to do so by pointing out, "In these mysteries, there's always some red herrings that are just too obvious," or something like that.

Two of the red herrings pan out, actually... I won't spoil which, in case you get to actually see it. But they're the two that I LEAST expected to be the correct answer.

So I love it.

Dialogue: Being a geek, I love this subgenre, and I was tickled that they acknowledge that the line itself "The Game's Afoot" is itself lifted from Shakespeare's King Henry V. In fact, one of the running gags is characters quoting Shakespeare lines to one another. I wondered if they were going to do that standard Alan-Rickman-in-Galaxy Quest gag, where the Shakespearean thespian moans about how he's too prestigious to play this or that role... but nope. It's just a running gag. And a good one.

As for the rest of the jokes, well, they go pretty well. It's fast-paced, metafictional, geeky, what more do you want? And it makes some rather socially relevant mentions of the time period (the 1930s, and the New Deal), that manage to avoid feeling didactic.

Some of the characters "work" better than others. I thought the inspector had some clunky moments (though that may have been due to the overlong slapstick moment she was not noticing... see below), but she delivered them well.

Characterization/Acting: Pretty good. The assorted cast of suspects is colorful enough, and the actors are competent, both at the serious parts, and the comedy, and the violence. Yeah, there's violence.

There's also some scenery-chewing, particularly by the victim and one of the suspects... but with a play like this, that's really to be expected, and it didn't seem out of place.

Blocking/Direction: And here, we hit a snag. The comic DIALOGUE is wonderful and exquisite, but the slapstick moments... well, it's sort of the same problem I had with the Tennant/Tate Much Ado About Nothing: The slapstick is funny, and well-executed, and I laughed for a while, but the "bits" go on for far too long, and occasionally seem somewhat out of place. There are two long-gags in particular that drag on so long I no longer found them funny... but thankfully, they were relatively near the beginning, so the rest was a pleasant surprise.

And when we get down to the violence, well... I noticed that one of the punches didn't actually connect, but on the other hand, I honestly do not know how they did one of the other fights. It was that convincing, and that gruesome. So yeah, if they fool me, they do a good job.

Sets, Lighting & Sound: Breathtaking. The re-creation of Gillette's castle in Connecticut was a masterwork of set design. The furnishings, the stonework and woodwork... you know, the real William Gillette was a pioneer of this sort of thing, and they've stayed true to his legacy. The lighting is artfully designed and playful, very detailed, certainly nothing YSP has ever used... but indeed, it works.

As for the sound... well, there wasn't really much in the way of sound effects, besides the obligatory thunderstorm partway through the play, and a couple of gunshots... both of which were far too loud, even from the balcony where Damir and I were sitting. The music plays over the opening and closing, like with most plays, and that's about it for sound.

Overall: So yeah, if it's playing near you (if it gets a wide release, or perhaps a movie adaptation), go see it.


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