HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS: Theatre Jacksonville’s “THE GAME’S AFOOT”

A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW BY DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM

THEATRE JACKSONVILLE THROUGH NOV 20

Jacksonville’s legendary playhouse located in San Marco has opened “The Game’s Afoot,” an exciting comedy/farce by contemporary playwright Ken Ludwig, who is well-known for his humorous inventive scripts. The play received an Edgar Award in 2012 from Mystery Writers of America for Best Play. Over the years Ludwig’s plays have frequently graced the stages of many of our local theatres: other award-winning hits include” Lend Me a Tenor,” “Leading Ladies,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Crazy for You.”

What most theatre patrons don’t know is that the leading character in “The Games Afoot” is in part based on a real person: William Gillette (1853-1937), an American actor and director who appeared as Sherlock Holmes in over a thousand performances during the course of three decades and became quite rich in the process. He and Arthur Conan Doyle became close friends; other best friends included Samuel Clemens, Calvin Coolidge, and Albert Einstein. That is the true part of the story; the rest comes from Ludwig’s wild imagination.

A Game's Afoot, Theatre Jacksonville, Dual Critics

The play takes place on Christmas Eve in 1936, and Costume Designer Curtis J. Williams has attired the cast in marvelously accurate clothing from the era. The massive set by TJ’s Technical Director Tim Watson is equally marvelous, a mansion filled with luxurious furnishings and advanced technology that belongs to William Gillette.

The play opens at a New York theatre in early December during the closing moments of an on-stage performance by Gillette, appearing in the role of Holmes. Afterward, as he comes forward to thank the audience for their applause, he is shot and wounded by an unknown assailant. While recovering, he invites his fellow actors to join him at his Connecticut mansion on Christmas Eve for a fun-filled weekend. And while the set includes a decorated tree and gifts, the play isn’t really about the holiday season. Gillette’s real reason for the party is to see if he can identify the shooter. However, one of the guests is murdered and the play becomes a high speed farce as the entire cast gets intensely involved in finding out “who done it.”

Actor Michal Ray is picture-perfect in the role of the Gillette, bringing the impresario to life. This is his fourth role on TJ’s stage; we have seen him previously in “Lombardi,” “Hilda’s Yard,” and “Rumors,” all well done.

After having established herself in Jacksonville as a fine multi-talented actress (musical, comedy, and drama) and an extraordinary costume designer, Tracy Anne Olin has turned her talents to directing. Last season she directed the hilarious “The Explorers Club,” and has followed up by selecting a super cast for this delightful bigger than life story.

Let us give you a look at the zany cast. St. Augustine actress Vanessa Warner, who always seems to be on stage either at TJ or St. Augustine’s Limelight theatre, is Mr. Gillette’s delightful and protective mother. Or is she?

Actress Rhonda Fisher is Inspector Goring, persistent and smart, who appreciates Sherlock Holmes and brags that she catches all the criminals in the end. Her most recent appearance at TJ was in “The Miracle Worker.”

The perky Blythe Reed is Aggie, young, attractive, and a former love interest of Gillette, who was recently widowed and is herself a lovely mystery. Ms. Reed was Miss Bingley in this season’s acclaimed “Pride and Prejudice.” She also appeared in ABET’s hit “One man, Two Guv’nors.”

A Game's Afoot, Theatre Jacksonville, Dual Critics

Gillette’s best friend, the lively and funny Felix, is played by Christopher Watson, who previously appeared at TJ in “The Explorers Club.” As Madge, his hilarious wife, we find another Theatre Jacksonville regular, Sommer Farhat, who was last seen on stage as Ruth in “Always a Bridesmaid.”

The notable Neal Thorburn, an award-winning actor for his multiple roles in the wonderful “Figaro,” is one of the best comic actors on our local stages. While you never know what is coming next when he is on stage, it is almost always very funny. As Simon, is he is a lover of sorts, a suspected shooter, and perhaps a murderer.

Another local favorite, Shirley Sacks Kirby, portrays Daria Chase, a biting theatre critic with another professional skill; she is a medium who conduct séances. You are going to love her red hair and over-the-top characterization. While her current favorite role is as “Drama Mama” to theatre students at Stanton College Preparatory, she previously appeared on TJ’s stage several years ago in “The Boys Next Door,” and her past credits include major roles in a number of other productions. Additionally, she has an impressive list of award-winning credits as a director of musicals and is very much in the demand in this field.

Additional Production Team Members include: Katie Gile (Stage Manager); Brady Corum (Assistant Technical Director); Audie Gibson (Light Board Operator); Mark Rubens (Sound Board Operator); Maggie O’Conner (Properties); and Spencer Carr, David Fisher, Kenzie Greers, Ronald Hughes (Run Crew).

“The Games Afoot” runs through November 20, 2016 at 2032 San Marco Avenue. Visit theatrejax.com or call (904) 396-4425 for additional information and reservations.

Of note, up next at Theatre Jacksonville is “The Dozen Divas Show” a one-woman musical comedy extravaganza starring Dorothy Bishop. One show only: Saturday, December 3, 2016 at 7:30 pm.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.
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