Friday, December 15, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take, 2, Column 46, A Review: "The Games Afoot" (Warner Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Theatre critics, take notice!
If you're one of those nasty individuals who enjoys making actors miserable by ripping them to shreds in print, you seriously could end up with a knife in your back.
And why not?
Is the actor in question, really that bad?
Is the performance that hideous?
Is there a hidden agenda behind your poison pen?
Is there animosity toward the theater, the production staff, the director, the costume designer and the publicist?
If your answer is "Yes!" "Yes! "Yes" and "Yes!" to all four questions, then the axe, so to speak, if going to fall fast.
And deservedly so.
You deserve to fall, you snarky, hateful theatre critic.
Just who the fuck do you think you are?

In the eyes of playwright Ken Ludwig, the death of a theatre critic who obviously went too far is played for laughs in "The Game's Afoot," a wicked, deliciously witty whodunit farce that gets huge audience belly laughs from actors who unashamedly overact, young lovers who commit murder to inherit millions, a female detective who craves the limelight and a mother who'll do just about anything for her very egotistical, very wealthy actor/son.
The joke, of course, is that nothing is quite what it seems.
Or, is it?
Lightning and thunder strikes. The chandelier dims and flickers. Dead bodies pop up here and there on stage and off. 
And just about everyone in "The Game's Afoot" has a motive.
You can play detective.
You can theorize with family and friends during intermission.
Or you can just sit back and enjoy.
The choice is yours as this giddy, daft, marvelously paced farce merrily unfolds on the stage of the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre much to the delight of everyone in the audience and every single actor in the production space.
It's funny.
It's clever.
It's outrageous.
It's twisty.
It's surprising.
And it's the perfect escape from rushed Christmas shopping, those God-awful office parties with paper plates and paper cups and those road-rage morons who think they're getting a bargain this December at "Best Buy," "Target" and "Curry's PC World" by grabbing dopey merchandise  that didn't sell last Christmas or the year before that.

"The Game's Afoot" takes place on Christmas Eve, circa 1936 at actor William Gillette's castle in Connecticut. The mystery, however, begins when the actor is shot on stage while performing his most famous role of Sherlock Holmes. Was the bullet meant for him? Was it meant for another actor? And oh, yes, who exactly fired the shot?
At the mansion, all of the characters are introduced one by one. They drink. They laugh. They sneer. They fight. They confess. They drop dead. They don't stay dead. Then, they really do drop and stay dead.

Staging "The Game's Afoot" is actor/director Joe Guttadauro who was last seen as Bill Slank in the Warner Stage Company's stirring production of "Peter and the Starcatcher," directed by Katherine Ray. An actor with great stage presence, coming timing and the ability to surprise and enchant without any sort of calculation, Guttadauro is the perfect choice to direct this particular Ludwig farce.
From an actor's standpoint, he knows how an actor moves, how an actor should play physical comedy and how certain comic lines are supposed to be delivered at the drop of a hat.
In some cases, he purposely instructs the cast to take it over the top as if  "The Game's Afoot" is high camp or slaphappy melodrama. Then, he asks them to settle down, play things for real, then, amp it up again when Ludwig decides to play hide the body, cover the body, carry the body or keep the body from toppling over while standing up. It's a dishy, crazy conceit that Guttadauro develops brilliantly and madly without ever missing a single beat. His, cast, in turn, are only too happy to oblige.

"The Game's Afoot" also comes equipped with a jokey sĂ©ance that's funny and well-executed by Guttadauro. Much later, there's some very crazy bits that have most of the characters wandering in and out of the kitchen for late-night snacks and more over the top camp as the cast stop, pose or freeze in typical melodrama/farce fashion. It all works splendidly under Guttadauro's keen, observant, watchful eye.

In the lead role of William Gillette, a comic role that seems tailor made for Randy Ronco, the actor delivers one of the year's funniest portrayals of an eccentric, egotistical actor so in love with himself, theatre, performance and characterization, his grandstanding, posturing and exceptional line delivery get laughs in all the right places. He never once makes a false move when the script asks him to drift back and forth between actor and sleuth to solve the murder at hand in typical Holmes' fashion. Or when asked to overly emote by pushing high camp to the max. He succeeds swimmingly.

Is there anything Thursday Savage cannot do? I think not.
Whether playing Hester Pryne in Vagabond Theatre Company's hypnotic "The Scarlett Letter" or most recently as Emily Brent in the Warner Stage Company's "And Then There Were None," the actress comes to the stage so focused, so prepared and so in touch with every one of the character's she is playing, her theatrical savvy, flair and dedication to her craft is absolutely remarkable.
In "The Game's Afoot," she portrays Martha Gillette, the caring and doting mother of eccentric actor William Gillette. The role itself is a star turn for Savage who dazzles, cajoles and delights with a brilliantly comic performance that is raw, real, wacky, dizzy and merrily out-of-sorts. She has great fun with Ludwig's pungent dialogue, the play's actual whodunit conceit and an outrageously comic moment where she mistakes the play's female detective for a man and shamelessly throws herself at him.....oops, her. Her coming timing and line delivery is "spot on."

Last seen as Kate in the Goshen Players' sparkling production of  A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia," directed by John Ozerhoski, Catherine Thoben Quirk, brilliant in that part,  does a complete 360-turn in "The Game's Afoot" that's so decidedly different, I kept asking myself, "Is that the same actress?" "Is that the same actress," "Is that the same actress?"
Of, course, it is.
It's Quirk, front and center, playing the icy cool, devious theatre critic Daria Chase, a woman, who, can make or break any actor with such stinging, nasty critiques, it's easy to understand why most actors want to see her "Dead." The role itself is an intriguing mix of camp, contempt, bitchiness and satire that Quirk builds, shapes and performs, so splendidly, you never once doubt anything she does and says. Her movements, her gestures, her facial expressions and her stinging line delivery are appropriately acerbic and laced with a raw and direct realness that unfolds in glorious Technicolor whenever she's on stage.

As Inspector Harriet Goring, Lana Peck offers yet another sparkling, effervescent performance that is witty, crazy, hammy, dizzying and chock full of the comic snap, crackle and pop that the actress does best. Here, as in the recent "And Then There Were None" where Peck played Mrs. Ethel Rogers to the height of sheer perfection, the actress is at the top of her game.
What's especially fun about Peck is that she never gives the same performance twice. That's why directors always cast her in their productions. She has extraordinary insight and range. She know how to take a line of dialogue and make it her own. And she's not afraid to take chances. Here, she plays her super sleuth female detective character boldly and wisely, using broad, comic stokes and colors that are exactly right for this sort of comic mayhem. She also knows how to amp and ham it up whenever Guttadauro asks her to do. And when she's center stage with the spotlight shining bright, Peck goes for broke and delights her audience at every comic turn.

Daniel Dressel gives his role of the charming, mischievous Simon Bright just the right slapdash whodunit good intention. He also has an ingeniously stated Chaplinesque quality about him that makes his comic performance shine and shimmer in all the right places. He knows how to shape and build a comic character effortlessly. As an actor, he is totally immersed in the play's farce, its comedy, its cheeky banter and its slapstick. He also knows how to deliver a punch line and gag without the slightest exaggeration, which, in turn, makes everything he does honest and spontaneous.

 Lydia Babbitt and Mike Zizka who portray Madge and Fred Geisel are colorful, competent enough actors who know the mechanics of stage farce inside out. As does Ashley McLeod who plays the recently widowed Aggie Wheeler. All three have their moment in the spotlight offering hilarious comic turns whenever the script places them front and center in this giddy, wacky comedy that will keep you laughing and laughing for well over two hours.

You'll have to see the production to find out.

PS: The period costumes, designed by Renee C. Purdy and Matthew Dettmer, are gorgeous, sumptuous and totally indicative of the period from whence they came with careful attention paid to detail, style and character. The set design by Stephen  C. Houk and Joe Guttadauro is atmospheric and handsomely executed. And Chris LaPlante's sound design lends itself nicely to the whodunit at hand.

photos by Mandi Martini

."The Game's Afoot" is being staged by the Warner Stage Company (Nancy Marine Studio Theatre, (68 Main St, Torrington, CT), now through Dec. 17.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 489-7180.