The Game's Afoot by John Farrell
by John Farrell,
Correspondent to The Press-Telegram
The actor who made Sherlock Holmes a household name tries to imitate his art in 'Postmortem' at the Studio Theatre
"POSTMORTEM" at Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, Long Beach, California
WILLIAM GILLETTE, the American actor, playwright and producer, was one of the biggest stage celebrities in the United States at the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century.
It was Gillette who wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle in England and bought the rights to create a play based on Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. That play was a smash hit for more than three decades, with Gillette creating the look and sound and costume of the world's greatest detective for audiences all over America and Europe.
His version of Holmes — deerstalker cap, curved pipe, long-caped coat, steely eyes and hawk nose — is the one American illustrator Frederic Dore Steele drew for Holmes' many magazine appearances. The curved pipe and double-peaked cap that are now part of the Holmes image were invented by Gillette.
"Postmortem," the murder-mystery thriller by Ken Ludwig that opens Saturday night (after a preview tonight) at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, takes place in the eccentric Gillette's home on a weekend in 1922.
Gillette has invited the cast of his play, now celebrating its 30th year, to a celebration at his castle overlooking the Connecticut river. (The actual castle, complete with hidden passages and a miniature steam train that traveled around the lavish grounds, is now a Connecticut State Park and the state's No. 2 tourist attraction.)
This is more than just a celebration, though. Gillette's lover died mysteriously a year earlier, and he is determined to find out if she committed suicide, or if one of the cast members murdered her. To do this, he arranges a series of events at the castle, including a séance, to see if he can equal his most famous impersonation in solving a mystery.
"This is a whodunit, basically, a great country weekend mystery thriller in the grand style," said director David Colley. He has performed in several plays at the Long Beach Playhouse and directed elsewhere, but this is his Playhouse directing debut.
" 'Postmortem' is by Ken Ludwig, who is best known for the farces he has written, like 'Lend Me a Tenor,' " Colley said by phone from his Torrance office. "This, though is a mystery. There are plenty of fun lines in the play, but though there are some great comic references, it's not an over-the-top farce."
The play is being performed in the Playhouse's 99-seat Equity-waiver theater, and that means that creating the grandeur and scale of Gillette's castle is a bit difficult.
"Our set designer has done a great job," Colley said. "We have stone walls and chandeliers and plenty of weapons hanging on the walls, but the audience will have to imagine the scale of the castle."
Gillette's house guests for the weekend include the actors who play all the characters in his play, including Professor Moriarty and Dr. Watson.
"This isn't a Sherlock Holmes play, but there are plenty of references to him," Colley said. "It's only tangentially about Holmes. It's really about Gillette and his actors and whether Gillette can equal Sherlock Holmes, whom he has played for three decades."