Driftwood Players (The Players) at
Wade James Theatre
950 Main St.
The Game’s Afoot
By Ken Ludwig
Directed by Ted Jaquith
Runs through June 25 on
Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings
Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
The Game’s Afoot, by the prolific playwright Ken Ludwig, could easily have been written as a chilling 1930s noir drama – but thank goodness it wasn’t!
The plot of merrily executed murders made mysterious by the crazed cruelty of cloak and dagger (sorry, those who have seen it will understand the word play; we couldn’t help ourselves) the main story line revolves, in highbrow linguistic style, around fast-spinning subplots.
Talented director Ted Jaquith and the technical crew of The Players gave the production all of the eerie earmarks of Hitchcock ala Ludwig, capitalizing on the playwright’s dangerously remote setting – a mansion hidden in dark woods beside a murky river.
A dinner party is about to take place. All the while, a storm is brewing thus trapping the arriving dinner guests of Broadway success William Gillette. Throughout the evening the electricity arches, sparks fly and the lights flicker as we nervously count the daggers and dragoons disappearing from the drawing room wall — and the plot thickens.
Similar to a Wharton novel, The Game’s Afoot tortures with brilliant pacing. We know something bad is about to happen – a poisoning, a stabbing, a close-range shooting – but when the deed is done – somehow we are left laughing hysterically. Therein lies the balance of Ludwig’s success with this stylish play. The scales tip back and forth between the sinister and the boisterous.
Only a troupe with the sophistication and experiential resources of The Players could pull off, so brilliantly, the alliteration and double entendre that the playwright crafted.
Director Ted Jaquith, known for seeing to every detail of a production, has done right by The Players in how The Game’s Afoot is staged. Kudos for his casting of well-seasoned, and popular, local actors.
Jon Woods has been given the role of William Gillette, a brilliant actor who 20 years ago had the foresight of writing what has become a successful Sherlock Holmes play that has made it to Broadway. His coffers now afford him an impressive mansion on the banks of the Connecticut River near East Haddam. Woods’ character turns about, affording the audience a full view of solving-the-crime options before closing in brilliantly on yet a new set of motives and suspects. It’s Woods who keeps the production’s pace, achieved via well-delivered dialogue.
The enchanting Laura Crouch plays Gillette’s grand dame mother, Martha Gillette. Her royal carriage, her character’s loyalty, the pretense of senility hidden behind such a calculating mind gave the actress the vehicle to showcase how very talented she is.
J Woody Lotts, playing the pal of theatre tycoon Gillette (Simon Bright), chases the ruse as the plot zeroes in on the main killer – or killers – (one can never be quite sure until the end of a Ludwig play). What works to Lotts’ best advantage? Humor – of course! Lotts’ contribution to the hilarity is scurrying around the crowded drawing room with a certain body — hiding it in plain sight. Lotts has achieved a very successful main stage debut with The Players. “Congratulations!”
Theatre critic Daria Chase, played by Caitlin Gilman, has the most colorful and uproarious role of all. No one takes a death scene to the limits quite like Gilman. The audience erupted in laughter! Her Cornish College of the Arts training illuminates the stage. Audiences would have seen Gilman in Seven Keys to Baldpate, Sin, Sex and the CIA as well as many other Seattle-area productions. Theatre arts? She wears it well. More from Caitlin Gilman, please!
Artfully Edmonds noted in last week’s column one fan’s reaction to The Game’s Afoot, “I loved laughing, then screaming, then laughing because I screamed. Awesome job you wonderful people!”
Jay Vilhauer and Jennifer Makenas play the recently married Madge and Felix Geisel. Their characters are so, so perfect – something surely must be amiss! But that is the only hint this reviewer is giving out as to their agenda.
Makenas is the epitome of a 1930s stage star. Statuesque, she shows off her mustard-colored ensemble while gliding across the drawing room with impeccable grace.
Ah Yes! Felix Geisel: The man chased relentlessly by a former lover. Loyal Driftwood Players audiences will easily recall Vilhauer in his recent role as Aldolpho (another blackguard role) in The Drowsy Chaperone. He’s good. . .he’s very good. Vilhauer’s credits run deep and the chemistry between characters Madge and Felix Geisel is dazzling – and dangerous!
Not to be overlooked is Inspector Harriet Goring, played by the formable Gretchen Douma (The Strange Disappearance of Bees). Dare one think that anything is getting past the beady-eyed Inspector. No detail is missed in spite of the irony of her thick-lenses glasses. Inspector Goring, as a frustrated thespian, parallels smartly Gillette as a frustrated Sherlock Holmes. Wordplay is the weapon in their clever dual.
What a web of suspense would be woven were the characters not hilariously bumping into each other, throughout the evening.
But the unlikely humor of the situation developing at the Gillette mansion is not the only thing that director Jaquith had to nuance. The play’s Shakespearean references add just the right ingredient.
Should one be in the dark regarding the title, The Game’s Afoot, the words are taken from a line in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Known for its hallmark “Presume not that I am the thing I was,” the three words — The Game’s Afoot — give intellectual grist for the plot. Shakespeare aficionados will be delighted with the playwright’s insertions of The Bard’s lines into Ludwig’s dialogue.
In a production as complex as this one – murder mixed with mirth; two-faced characters, Shakespeare lines layered onto 1930s noir, a sinister setting, a storm pelting the windows as actors disappear one by one – require close teamwork of the production staff.
Congratulatory shout-outs to the production team with ovations for Melina Boivin (costume designer); John Chenault (lighting design); Brian Lechner (set design); and Arian Smit (sound design).
Diane Jamieson deserves to step forward for her dual assignment as co-producer and co-stage manager, which she shared with Lisa Rempel and Jonathan Olson. Brava, Diane!
If you are looking for shrewd sophistication; murderous merriment, all artfully executed – look no further than The Game’s Afoot, directed skillfully by Ted Jaquith.
Tickets are flying out of the box office – so grab your set now via the Driftwood Players link provide here.
— By Emily Hill