Murder and fun in “The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays”

Kilby T. Akin, Gabriel McAuley, Dan Garcia, Sarah Sinclair, Remo Iraldi and Pamela Lambert in “The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays” at the Musical Theater. (Mark S. Howard)

Director Fred Sullivan Jr. says the title of Lyric Stage’s new production says it all: “The Game is Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays.”

“When I first heard that, I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” Sullivan told the Herald. “But ‘The Game’s Afoot’ is exciting, and so the ‘Holmes for the Holidays’ subtitle is kind of silly and stupid.”

Exciting and stupid silliness quickly became a hallmark of Sullivan’s collaborations with Lyric. A year ago, he directed The Play That Goes Wrong, a comedy of errors, an homage to farce and hilarious disaster, the production’s uncanny timing, dozens of witty puns, silly tricks, clever gags and uplifting of the lowly. Take spitting to an art form. This year we return to a mysterious mansion for more sinister deeds and bumbling detective work.

Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays,” now through December 17, takes a peek at a December 1936 holiday party at the Connecticut castle of actor William Gillette, the man who created the character Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen. Guests arrive for a weekend filled with magic, glamour, and… murder! (Oh, and lots of laughter.)

“That’s also over the top (like ‘the play goes wrong’),” Sullivan said with a laugh. “There are a lot of attempted murders and complete murders on stage. There’s a lot of thunder and lightning and blackouts… It’s clever and witty. It has elements of slapstick and farce.”

Gillette was a real person, a sort of actor-manager, a precursor to Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Much of the way we view Holmes comes from Gillette’s vision of the character.

“He added the deer hunter’s hat, the traveling cloak, and the bent pipe, and was the originator of the phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson,'” Sullivan said.

Ludwig uses a lot of Gillette’s rich and strange history in his play. He also cleverly throws it away when it doesn’t work.

“They’re not British but the inspector is for a reason, and of course there’s a lot of stuff Ken Ludwig adds that doesn’t make sense,” Sullivan said. “Gillette was 80 the year he did this but in the play he was 40. And he would say anything that didn’t fit with what he was trying to do, ‘(Expletive), this is a fictional farce.'” But the way he put it together “With it, it is an art.”

Hopefully this fall tradition of Sullivan directing something loud (“Noises Off,” 2024’s “La Cage aux Folles,” or 2024’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”) continues. The theater scene needs to have broad appeal, and fortunately that is the case, at least this fall. Lyric placed “The Game’s Afoot” between the heavier stuff, “Assassins” and “Trouble in Mind.” And while “Lyric” is getting weird, theaters around town are presenting “Real Women Have Curves,” “The Band’s Visit” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” Companies seem to think that intoxicating production and escapism should come in equal measure.

Sullivan went to see Gillette’s actual home in Connecticut to prepare for the play. There he met another person who was wandering around the house and explained to him what had brought him to the castle.

“I told him (the show) was exciting and kind of silly, and he said, ‘This is what we need right now,’” Sullivan said.

For tickets and details, visit Lyricstage.com.

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