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Broadway fight choreographer Rick Sordelet (right) demonstrates the finer points of a mock choke-hold with actors Nathan Hosner (top left) and Jerry Jay Cranford (bottom).

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"The Game's Afoot": Staging Serious Fights for Comedy-Mystery

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Rick Sordelet, a veteran director and fight choreographer, was brought in by director Richard Carrothers to help with specific acts of violence in Ken Ludwig’s murder-mystery farce “The Game’s Afoot.” On the menu are a shooting, a stabbing, a garroting and a fall from a three-story window.

Sordelet knows how to do “serious” violence, such as high-stakes sword fights, but in “The Game’s Afoot” he’s dispatching actors in a comedic context. The job is pretty much the same, he says, regardless of the material.

“When you work as a fight director, an important part of the process is talking to the director first,” Sordelet said one afternoon at the New Theatre Restaurant’s West Side rehearsal studio and scene shop.

The director will relay the tonality and style of how they want the show to look and feel to the audience and having worked with Ludwig before and knowing the way he writes, Sordelet said he has come to know what a Ludwig comedy is supposed to be like.

“At the end of the day you serve the director’s vision, you keep the actors and audience safe and you serve the text,” he said. “Comedy is really the pursuit of an action and in a lot of ways there’s such a fine line between comedy and drama. It’s really a tonality difference. An actor has to pursue an action in comedy just as hard as he would in drama, but what makes it funny is that the dilemma is delicious for us to see them work through their problems.”

Ludwig is easily the most successful American farceur in the last 20 years. His plays “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo” have reached wide audiences. Those plays, like “The Game’s Afoot,” depict behind-the-scenes chaos in the world of theater.

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Broadway fight director Rick Sordelet (right) throws a mock punch as actor Nathan Hosner (left) reacts and actor Jerry Jay Cranford (center) watches in rehearsals for Ken Ludwig's The Game's Afoot.

This show, which is receiving its first local production at the New Theatre, is subtitled “Holmes For the Holidays.” Its point of departure is the remarkable career of actor William Gillette, who co-wrote the play “Sherlock Holmes” with Arthur Conan Doyle and went on to play the fictional detective some 1,300 times.

“The Game’s Afoot” is set on Christmas Eve in 1936. Gillette takes his curtain call following a performance as Holmes and is shot in the arm by an unseen assailant. He repairs to Gillette Castle, his baronial fantasyland home in Connecticut, with assorted guests. There he dons the traditional Holmes costume and announces that he, Gillette, will deduce who shot him. But in Agatha Christie fashion, guests start dropping.

Ludwig took liberties with the historical timeline. In 1936, Gillette would have been in his 80s. He died the following year.

Like any whodunit, there are plays within a play, people who the audience will think is guilty but aren’t and everyone is scheming.

“So this play is as complex as ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth,’ ” Sordelet said. “The characters are just as complex and just as much fun. And the violence is from moments (that are) downright silly to deadly earnestness. Gunshots and garroting and bludgeoning. We have a wide gamut of stuff. You remind me I need to send Ken Ludwig a big bouquet of fruit and flowers and say, ‘Thank you from all fight directors for writing this play.’ ”

Sordelet’s resume includes a long list of Broadway shows, including musicals (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Urinetown”) and dramas (revivals of “Fences” and “Oleanna”). Kansas City audiences have seen his work before. In 2002 he staged fights for the New Theatre’s production of “Scarlet Pimpernel” and the following year he directed “Grease” for the New Theatre. In 2004, the Lyric Opera tapped him to direct “Of Mice and Men.”

He’s also worked extensively in film and television, including 12 years as a stunt adviser for “Guiding Light” and 18 months on “One Life to Live.” Say what you will about daytime soaps, Sordelet values the experience.

“Soap operas were a great training ground for so many of our young actors, and for many of them it was their first exposure to camera work,” Sordelet said. “These are folks who could put out 90 pages a day, which is unheard-of. They were basically doing what we call a play in one day. It was a great medium.”

One might think that soaps wouldn’t need the services of a fight director too often, but Sordelet said he averaged about three stunts a week.

“Toward the end we would do parts of different episodes on the same day because we were trying to save money,” he said. “There were times where I would literally do stunts for six difference episodes on the same day. And that was fantastic.”

And, he added, there were times when he was called in to help stage the sex scenes.

“The actors could get really vigorous,” he said. “You know, you had to keep them from smashing their lips together or grabbing each other in an inappropriate way, and covering up so that we could stay compliant with the rules of television.”

Sordelet, who is on the Yale Drama School faculty, is from Duluth, Minn. He studied at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and later attended Rutgers University. His intention was to be an actor, but with a background in martial arts and fencing, he took to fight choreography. When he was hired for his first Broadway show, “Beauty and the Beast,” he took a silent vow that he would not act again.

A fight choreographer serves the director, but might there be times when his responsibilities essentially elevate him to co-director?

“A fight director working with a director is like a guy taking another guy’s wife out to lunch,” he said. “It’s enjoyable but there’s a line you don’t cross. So working with Richard or any other director, I make it very clear that I’m there to serve their vision. I will defer always to the director …

“Richard is a very generous director and it’s one of the reasons the New Theatre is so successful, because the atmosphere in the rehearsal room is lovely and he allows it to be lovely. Actors have a voice in rehearsals and are allowed to make suggestions.”

Sometimes directors will tell Sordelet to go ahead and stage entire scenes, but he still knows his place in the production.

“At the end of the day, it all has to fit under one roof,” he said. “It really can’t afford two houses.”

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2012/11/02/3896071/rick-sordelets-fake-fights-are.html#storylink=cpy

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