“The Game’s Afoot” will make you guess — and laugh

By Carrie Moore

When I was young, my favorite board game to play was Clue: the fun characters, the mystery, guessing and cute little plastic weapons!! I was so good at it, none of my friends wanted to play it with me (or perhaps it was due to my smugness when I won? But that’s not the point….) So it should be no shock to hear that I was really excited for Black Hills Playhouse’s (BHP) production of “The Game’s Afoot.” The show is, sadly, the last production of the summer, but it was a fantastic note to end on.

“The Game’s Afoot” starts in the end of a play. It’s a play-within-a-play for the first few moments (stay with me here.) The cast — William Gillette (Jeff Kingsbury), Felix Geisel (Matthew Murry), Madge Geisel (Stephanie Murry), Aggie Wheeler (Jacquelyn Kiefner) and Simon Bright (Ryan Adolph) — perform their final scene, take a final bow and then — BAM! — Gillette is shot. And it only becomes more mysterious and twisty-er from there!

Two weeks after the shooting, Gillette — admired over the world for his leading role as Sherlock Holmes, and an inventor himself — hosts his fellow cast members, whom he considers suspects, in his Connecticut estate for the holidays. But soon, mayhem follows when a guest is stabbed, forcing Gillette to assume the persona of Holmes in order to track down the killer before the next victim appears.

“The Game’s Afoot” is written by Ken Ludwig and won the 2012 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allen Poe Award, Best Play. BHP’s production was directed by Emily Cherry, who wore many hats this season, both directing and acting (“Putnam,” “Oklahoma!”). The production was well helmed with Cherry as director — it was a fast moving play, which I’ve learned can be tricky given the production also includes a lot of farce. But Cherry and the cast made those scenes — like where Matthew Murry and Kingsbury are trying to hide a body — smooth and progress nicely. Farce is comedic chaos, so I can tell this production was well rehearsed and thought out, but also, a lot of fun was had behind the scenes. 

With a small eight-person cast everyone has multiple scenes to shine.

I don’t even know where to begin in my review of Jeff Kingsbury’s role as Gillette. He was marvelous! Whether he was over-acting in our first introduction of Gillette (remember, play-within-a-play), delivering a monologue filled with heartache or mistaking a plea for help as a conversation starter, it was impossible to take your eyes off Kingsbury. (It was also impossible to not laugh your head off!) Kingsbury’s Gillette is the calm in the midst of chaos and is still able to have his moments of comedy, generating big laughs in his reactions. Kingsbury is at his best in “The Game’s Afoot.” (And if the comments from the woman sitting behind me count for anything, “He’s just fabulous.”)

If Kingsbury is Sherlock, then Matthew Murry is his Watson/Moriarty, depending on how you look at it. Matthew is a wonderful “sidekick” to Kingsbury, ready to assist his friend no matter the outcome, yet still a commanding presence on stage. He was inspiring when quoting Shakespeare and hilarious when reacting to the situations around him. In fact, he stole some scenes with some of those reactions.

Playing Matthew’s on-stage wife was his real life wife Stephanie Murry. I always love Stephanie’s performances, because she doesn’t have to say a thing; her expressive eyes and range of expressions do all the talking. But in her portrayal of Madge Geisel, I’m glad she did talk — because she delivered many comedic lines in a deadpan fashion that made me laugh out loud every time. (And once again, according to the woman behind me, “She’s terrific! She should be in movies!”)

Adolph as Simon Bright, as the name suggests, is a bright and cheerful character (most of the time) and is wonderfully portrayed. His performance was so light and breezy, until the intensity of their situation unfolded; then Simon’s true nature came to light. It was fun to see Adolph play in such a range.

Another actor who had great range was Kiefner, who played Aggie Wheeler, a relatively new actress, bombshell and recent widow. Like Adolph, she had great depth in her portrayal of Aggie: she was shy and timid, daring and seductive and a little bit evil — a huge contrast from Laurey in “Oklahoma!” (And she also looked amazing in her blue dress, but more on that later!) This is Kiefner’s first summer at the BHP and I hope there’s more in her (and our) future! 

There were two characters introduced shortly into the first act, Gillette’s mother, Martha, played by the legend Jennie May Donnell, and Daria Chase (Lera Zamaraeva), a play review critic who dishes (and flings) dirt, striking fear in the hearts of all the actors. It was like looking in a mirror. Just kidding.

Martha had a lot of energy to her, which Donnell nailed, playing her with lightheartedness and zest. She comfortably moved back and forth from innocent motherly figure to crazy lady hopped up on drugs. She was hilarious when she interacted with Kingsbury, as well as the inspector. There was always one surprise after another with Donnell and I am privileged to have been able to watch a talented and beloved actor on the BHP stage.

But the real scene stealer of the show was Zamaraeva. I think Zamaraeva is one of the most flexible actresses to ever take the stage, both literally and figuratively. You’ll see what I mean. Zamaraeva barrels into the play like a ton of bricks and wraps the audience around her finger. She is truly a villain you love to hate, but also don’t want to see go. And the physical comedy she performs with Kingsbury and Murry is not to be missed. Simply, Zamaraeva is amazing. (And, probably the best review from the woman behind me: “Oh my god, oh my god…I just might pee my pants!” So there.)

Another character we meet later on — not until the second act — is Inspector Goring, played by Madison Lynn Rimmer. I loved Rimmer’s portrayal of the less-than-successful inspector. She was bubbly, excited and passionate for solving the case. Goring’s quirkiness works like a charm here and allowed Rimmer to deliver a fun performance. I also really loved her accent; it was beautiful on my ears and that much more mesmerizing. I could have listened for hours more!

In closing, this was probably one of the best cast shows; everyone embodied their roles to a “T.”

Okay, let’s get to the fashion. Costumer designer Amber Marisa Cook knocked it out of the park with her designs. Since the play is set in the 1930s, the fashion is so elegant and glitzy. The girls had immaculate details in their dresses and lit up the stage (i.e., Kiefner’s blue, curve-fitting dress, lookin’ all like Marilyn Monroe up there!) while the men just oozed regalness and sophistication. The colors were lovely, both for their stage costumes and holiday wardrobe. I also loved Kingsbury’s multiple outfits —tux, smoking jacket and Sherlock-inspired wear, to name a few — and the “Mister Rodgers” moment of changing into them. There were quite a few outfits in this production, which I was surprised by. But these were probably some of the most beautifully created costumes I have seen on the BHP stage.

Matching the costumes in elegance was the set, designed by Justin A. Miller. The one room set is masterfully done with spinning walls, multiple entrances and exits and gorgeous details. There were painted panels to look like stained glass and high end wallpaper. The sconces and bookshelves also added to the beauty of the home. I most loved the French doors leading out to the terrace; it was pretty, yet functional. It truly felt like we were looking into a castle.

The set, however, wouldn’t have been half as realistic without the lighting, done by Christopher George Haug. I loved the placement and use of the lights, particularly with the Christmas tree. Throughout the production, a storm moved in and messed with the lights, causing things to go a bit haywire. It was fun to see how the lights — and Christmas tree — flickered, as they would if it truly happened. It was a great little touch that truly made everything seem that much more real. 

And when it came to the thunder and lighting, Haug and sound designer Dakota Erickson nailed it. The thunder and lighting was so realistic and really set the backdrop of the scenes on stage. The thunder was also delivered in great fashion, causing the audience — okay, me — to jump a couple of times. It was a lot of fun…once my heart rate returned to normal! 

“The Game’s Afoot” will give your brain a workout, that’s for sure. But it will leave you chuckling for the rest of the night. You definitely don’t want to miss this one!
For more information or to buy tickets to “The Game’s Afoot” (running through Aug. 19), visit blackhillsplayhouse.com.