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Ken Ludwig's 'The Game's Afoot' at Cleveland Play House

Ken Ludwig's 'The Game's Afoot' is a fictional adventure of famed Sherlock Holmes actor William Gillette
By Andrea Simakis, The Plain Dealer

Ken Ludwig hooked Michael Bloom with "Gillette Castle."

The 24-room, faux medieval fortress and tourist attraction on the Connecticut River was once the home of actor William Gillette, who famously embodied Sherlock Holmes onstage for some three decades. It is also the setting of Ludwig's new play, "The Game's Afoot," which begins previews at PlayhouseSquare's Allen Theatre Friday.
Turns out Bloom, artistic director of the Cleveland Play House, grew up in the Constitution State and, when he was a kid, visited the stone bastion detractors once called "Gillette's folly."

"It's a boy's delight," Bloom says of the crazy, little amusement park filled with mazes, hidden rooms and secret passageways, a minirailroad running 'round its massive perimeter.

Director Aaron Posner suggested that Bloom, on the hunt for the right project for the holidays, read "The Game's Afoot." The action takes place on Christmas Eve 1936, making it perfect fa-la-la-la-la fodder. (A comedy, it's also cheekily known by the title "Holmes for the Holidays.")

"I consider just about any play with a tree in it a holiday play," Bloom jokes, but finding fresh seasonal entertainment, or anything that doesn't star Ebenezer Scrooge, is as challenging as surfing Lake Erie in January.

Still, once Bloom discovered that Ludwig's newest work unfolded in the living room of the Gillette mansion, he was pretty much sold, with or without a Christmas tree. (A good sport, Ludwig offered to write a few more holiday references into the script because of its after-Thanksgiving opening).

Staging the world premiere of a script by a playwright of Ludwig's stature would be a coup for any artistic director. The former entertainment lawyer living in Washington, D.C., has had 12 shows on Broadway and in London's West End, starring such pros as Alec Baldwin, Hal Holbrook and Frank Langella.

The setup is pure Agatha Christie, played as farce, with a touch of "All About Eve": Actors from Gillette's current production of "Sherlock Holmes" gather at his mousetrap of a manor for eggnog and clever repartee but are treated to a seance, mayhem and murder instead. The master thespian must channel the deductive brilliance of the fictional detective -- whilst puffing on a meerschaum pipe, 'natch -- to help bring the killer to justice.

The association with Christie is hardly incidental. The ghost of the iconic mystery writer hovers over "The Game's Afoot" like a spirit conjured by a medium.
Ludwig was traveling home from an action-packed family vacation to England two years ago when he turned to his children and asked what they liked best about the trip. Was it the castles? The festivals? Nope. They both said their favorite memory was seeing the Agatha Christie play "The Mousetrap."

"I said, 'Uh-oh, I gotta write one of these,' " Ludwig recalls.

The standard for all Holmes players

In real life, the eccentric Gillette was a playwright, too. He penned "Sherlock Holmes" in 1899, casting himself in the role of Sir Arthur Canon Doyle's mercurial sleuth, a move that made him famous -- and one of the richest actors of his generation.

"He was very handsome, very romantic," playwright Ken Ludwig says of William Gillette. "He would bring the cast of whatever hit Broadway show he was in at the moment, which was usually yet another revival of 'Sherlock Holmes' to his beautiful castle on the Connecticut River. And I thought, wouldn't that be fun if we have a glamourous cast there and a murder happens? And Gillette, in a way, becomes Sherlock Holmes since he's played him for so many years. He's not crazy, but he and Holmes become one."
Henry Zecher, author of the definitive doorstop of a biography, "William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes," says that the actor, who died at 83 in 1937, raked in an estimated $3 million to $4 million throughout his career, mostly profits from "Sherlock Holmes." (Royalties from his oft-produced play helped fund the building of his "stone heap" in Hadlyme, Conn.)

His portrayal became the standard by which every actor who donned the deerstalker cap after him was measured.

"It is too little to say William Gillette resembled Sherlock Holmes," Orson Welles once said. "Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette . . . sounds like him, too."
To audiences that saw Gillette, it was as if the tall, lean man with the "sharp and piercing" eyes and "thin, hawk-like nose," as Dr. Watson describes Holmes, had walked off the pages of an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery. When the stories were published in the United States in Collier's magazine, artist Frederic Dorr Steele modeled his drawings on Gillette.

"You know how big a star John Wayne was?" says Zecher. "And Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery? That's how big William Gillette was as an actor. And if you look at the success of Neil Simon in the last half-century, that's how big a success he was as a playwright."

Gillette, who counted Conan Doyle and Samuel Clemens among his friends, feted President Calvin Coolidge and physicist Albert Einstein at his Hadlyme estate. "And they all took a ride on his miniature railroad," Zecher adds.

Gillette is, in many ways, "the father of Sherlock Holmes in the United States," says Peter Blau, a renowned Sherlockian living in Bethesda, Md., Ludwig's backyard. A fan, he attended a staged reading of "The Game's Afoot" at the Kennedy Center in 2010.
The petroleum geologist and freelance journalist is something of a detective himself when it comes to "Sherlockian theater." He has photocopies of programs from Gillette's appearances as the Victorian bloodhound at Cleveland's Euclid Avenue Opera House in 1901, 1903 and 1916 and from the actor's "farewell tour" at the Ohio Theatre in 1930.
Of Gillette's last performance as Holmes, Plain Dealer critic William F. McDermott wrote that though "his voice sounds a little tired at times . . . the old Gillette force is there, the power to whip out an ironic line, to dominate a scene by the pressure of inward dignity, to mold and magnetize a character by the grip of personal charm. Gillette is unique in this respect among our actors. Windy histrionics, the outward gusts of passion, the show and sputter of play-acting were never part of his method or equipment."

A leading exponent of natural acting

Gillette is credited with pioneering today's realistic style of acting, where people just speak to each other rather than bloviate from the footlights.

"He was to the theater what Clemens and Theodore Dreiser were to American literature, a leading exponent of naturalism," Zecher wrote. "Born in the era of melodrama, with its grand gestures and sonorous declamations, he created in his plays characters who talked and acted the way people talk and act in real life."
Blau, who was born in Cleveland, once asked his father if he'd ever seen Gillette perform. "Of course!" the old man said.
"What was he like?" Blau asked.
"I can't remember," his dad answered.
The son was incredulous. "How can you have seen William Gillette and not remember what he was like?"
"Cuz," his father said, "in 1930, I didn't know I was gonna have a son as peculiar as you are."

By all accounts, Gillette was peculiar, too, installing whiz-bang gadgets into the architecture of Gillette Castle to delight and amaze visitors -- often actors from his latest New York revival that he'd invited for the weekend. In the dining room, the table, fully set with food and china, would slide through a wall panel as his guests were having dinner.

Like Bloom, Ludwig visited the castle years ago, and the strange yet fascinating place built by an equally odd but no less beguiling man lodged in his mind.
"I actually wrote another mystery about him -- it was one of my very earliest plays," Ludwig says. "Postmortem," presented in the Drury Theatre of the Cleveland Play House in 1985, resembles "The Game's Afoot" in that it features Gillette, a collection of flamboyant actors, a seance, mayhem and murder -- but it delivers fewer laughs. Though punctuated with comic moments, it's a darker, tenser tale.
Though still produced, "it never quite worked," Ludwig says. He thinks his fresh, lighter take on the wacky, wonderful world of America's Sherlock Holmes will replace his freshman work in the minds of audiences.

At least one Sherlockian thinks so, too. "I saw the world premiere of 'Postmortem' up in New Hampshire," Blau says. (Why are we not surprised?)
"This one's much, much better. The first one wasn't funny -- this one's hilarious."

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