It’s a lot easier playing Sherlock Holmes than trying to be him.
That’s the crux of the matter in the comedy The Game’s Afoot by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me A Tenor) which makes its Canadian debut July 10-28 at the Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Rd.), presented by Peninsula Productions and helmed by artistic director Wendy Bollard.
Ludwig’s artistic conceit in this 1930s farce is to plunge actor William Gillette – historically renowned for creating the role of the great detective in a phenomenally long-running stage adaptation of Conan Doyle’s Baker Street milieu – into a baffling real-life mystery.
When Gillette invites a number of people associated with his theatrical career to his gadget-heavy mock castle in Connecticut on Christmas Eve (with the secret agenda of solving a crime), it quickly becomes evident that his powers as a detective do not approach those of the mythical Holmes.
And therein lies the farce, according to local actor Ben Odberg (The Lion In Winter, Earth and Sky, Accomplice), who plays Gillette.
Though he’s played comedy before – and his quirky, individualistic interpretations make his dramatic work consistently interesting – Odberg admits this is the first time he’s actually played in a farce.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “It’s been just a blast. I love all the running back and forth, even though we’re not exactly slamming in and out of doors. It’s a lot of fun.”
He’s also relishing the potential for “melodramatic and over-dramatic acting” inherent in the piece, he said.
Also featured in Bollard’s hand picked cast are David Quast, who plays Felix, Gillette’s “second fiddle,” who also acts the role of Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty in the opening “play within a play,” Lori Tych as sarcastic drama critic Daria; Michelle Collier as a rarity for the era – a female Detective Inspector; Everett Shea and Rebekah McEwen as the ‘juvenile and ingenue’ couple; and Valerie Dearden, who plays “the doddering old mother.”
“Everybody thinks she’s not too sharp,” said Odberg. “She’s a very funny character.”
Odberg is the first to acknowledge that Ludwig’s play riffs on certain elements of the life of the real Gillette, rather than attempting to portray him accurately.
For instance, in Ludwig’s tale he’s depicted as a stage star in his ’40s.
“In 1936, when this is set, the real Gillette would actually have been 80,” he noted. “I think Ludwig wanted to create a murder-mystery and comedy and used whatever facts that fit that.
“The real William Gillette was the first actor who was noted because he brought in realism to the stage. That’s not the William Gillette the audience will be getting in this show.”
Odberg said his inspirations in playing Ludwig’s version of Gillette have been suave movie actors of the period, such as Cary Grant and William Powell, “with a little dash of Errol Flynn.”
“When I went for the read-through, I loved the play and I loved the character. He’s charming, debonair and dashing, but at the same time he can be a complete goof – a bit like Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace.”
He’s particularly enjoying working with Bollard, who also directed the well-regarded Agnes of God earlier this year and last year’s successful summer production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.
“She’s a really good director with lots of insights and ideas,” he said. “She likes you to explore and experiment, and her ideas are really good – she’s always working on something in the play, getting it up to speed.”
He’s also enjoying the reunion with Tych, a late addition to the cast, who last year played Queen Eleanor to his Henry in The Lion In Winter in the White Rock Players Club’s Theatre B.C. zone-winning production.
“She’s wonderful to play off,” he said. “Her part is full of biting wit and she’s really playing that up.”
Odberg said while he doesn’t want to spoil any of the twists in the script, the audience should be prepared for a few surprises.
The initial conundrum that begins the play ends up being dwarfed by an even bigger mystery, he said.
“Like all good mysteries, there has to be a murder,” he noted. “And from there, it all spins out of control.”
Although the farcical element is very prominent, there’s a good underlying mystery, with plenty of red herrings thrown in.
“I think people will be waiting to see who did it. It’s a gold mine for people who love mysteries – and for people who love comedy.”
Performances run Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.
For tickets ($23, $18) call 604-536-7535, or order online at www.peninsulaproductions.org