Ben Odberg and David Quast appear in Peninsula Productions’ The Games Afoot.

SIGHTLINES: Sure-footed cast spoof Sherlock Holmes

Colourful farce aided by knockout script and unrestrained performances

If you’re allergic to the colour orange, it’s possible you may have a problem with Peninsula Productions’ current summer theatre offering, The Game’s Afoot (Coast Capital Playhouse, until July 28).

An ingeniously designed, well-decorated and constructed set representing the luxurious Connecticut mansion of famed Broadway actor William Gillette has been given an unaccountably garish colour scheme in this production.

Where one might expect one of those ultra-luxurious white-on-white Art Deco/Moderne fantasias made fashionable by the movies in the 1936 time period of the play, designer Beverly Siver has given us a riot of tangerine and other competing colours.

The palette may be an attempt to evoke Gillette’s eccentricity, but it’s a little distracting, even for me – and I like the colour orange.

Such aesthetic matters to one side, The Game’s Afoot is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of live theatre – and a suitably bravura Canadian debut for this witty play by period-farce expert Ken Ludwig (Lend Me A Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, Shakespeare in Hollywood).

To a fine, witty script – balancing generous helpings of mysterious chills with verbal and knockabout humour – director Wendy Bollard and a multi-talented cast have brought their A-game.

The consistently professional result even manages to outdo Peninsula Productions’ version of The Mousetrap, a runaway hit for the company last year.

Much of the fun for the audience comes from the satirical barbs Ludwig throws at theatre people as a class. The veteran playwright is more than ready to skewer the egotistical pretensions of actors (an easy target, admittedly) – but also reserves a justifiable measure of vitriol for theatre critics as well (touché!).

The hilarity begins early with the first scene: the conclusion of Gillette’s famed stage depiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. As directed by the always-inventive Bollard, and ably played by a quintet of cast members, it successfully lampoons most of the conventions of old-school stage melodrama in a scant five minutes.

One unexpected plot development later, the audience is transported to Gillette’s home on Christmas Eve.

Gillette (Ben Odberg) has invited the key members of his Sherlock Holmes cast to spend the holiday with himself and his mother, former actress Martha (Val Dearden).

Simon Bright (Everrett Shea) and Aggie Wheeler (Rebekah MacEwan) have only recently become a couple, while Gillette’s oldest buddy, Felix Geisel (David Quast), and his wife Madge (Mahara Sinclaire), are long-married.

Gillette, it transpires, has more than a seasonal celebration on his mind. Obsessed with the delusion that he has somehow acquired the mythic powers of the detective he has so long portrayed, and eager to solve a real-life mystery surrounding his recent production, he introduces a wild card into the mix – universally-despised theatre critic and columnist Daria Chase (Lori Tych).

Given that the spiteful and all-knowing Chase has a veritable gift for inspiring mayhem, it isn’t too long before one of the intriguing array of weapons that adorn Gillette’s wall (among the nice properties supplied by Daniel Pelletier) is put to more than decorative use.

It also isn’t too long before Gillette finds himself covering up – rather than detecting – the crime.

Enter a real police detective, the unexpectedly female (“think of me as the wave of the future,” she says) Inspector Goring (Michelle Collier).

In no way reflecting the actual history of Gillette, and only tangentially connected to the immortal Sherlock, Ludwig’s audacious fantasy of dark deeds and comedic desperation gets a bang-up playing by all concerned, and the pace seldom flagged at the gala performance last Friday.

Odberg – always an interesting actor, even when one doesn’t agree with his choices – here reveals a marvelous (and previously untapped) talent for farce. His comedy timing and business is right on the money, and he hurls himself into the absurdity with admirable fearlessness.

Quast, as Gillette’s reluctant foil Felix, matches Odberg in timing and comic inspiration, and also plays well in his scenes with both Sinclaire and Tych. It’s an unrestrained but very sure-footed performance.

Sinclaire provides a very assured and appealing presence as the long-suffering Madge, capturing every nuance of Ludwig’s sharp and sophisticated dialogue.

Tych steals scenes left, right and centre in her pitch-perfect performance as Daria, a role which showcases not only her unfailing grasp of character and deft way with a line, but also a wonderful propensity for physical comedy.

Shea also has a sure touch in playing the endearingly goofy Simon, who may not be quite as guileless as he appears; while McEwen succeeds in suggesting a conflicted soul beneath the typical trappings of the ingénue – and also sings and ukulele-strums to good effect.

Dearden makes a splendidly dotty, directionally-challenged Martha, a role she seems to enjoy just as much as the audience. And Collier has some good moments, particularly when her supposedly vague inspector turns out to be much more on the ball than she seems – although her very English manner sometimes suggests her character has wandered on stage from an Agatha Christie mystery, rather than a police station in rural Connecticut.

Lighting and sound design by Matt Vondette are effective, while some well-chosen incidental music by Samantha Giffin and a voice-over cameo by Michael Roberds are helpful in providing necessary period atmosphere.

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