One feels a certain mental comfort in watching a well-knit ensemble interact with each other using a competently written script that plays on your familiarity with a genre, while leaving a bit of a mystery to still tantalize your mind.
Call it an intellectual mini-roller coaster ride. You know you’re bound to jump over a few bumps and twirl around some giant hoops, but you’re still looking forward to a few surprises as the journey takes you through a deep dark tunnel.
This is what essentially happens as you sit through “The Game’s Afoot,” Repertory Philippines’ pleasant, witty—if not exactly rip-roaring—production of Ken Ludwig’s comedy-thriller. Ludwig combines in this would-be Sherlock Holmes whodunit all the stereotypes and tropes of the different genres that have established his theater pedigree in both New York and London the past 20 years: humor, mystery, literature, all laced with his fondness for the dramatic arts.
Directed by Rep stalwart Miguel Faustmann, the play literally revolves around a murder (or several of them) that takes place within a small but feisty theater company that has built its decades-long success on one Sherlock Holmes play. In his long illustrious career, company founder and perpetual lead actor William Gillette (Paul Holme) has played no other character except the famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
His identification with the role gets deeper when someone attempts to kill him. Instead of turning the matter over to the police, Gillette tries to solve the case himself by inviting his ensemble of performers and one hostile but influential theater critic to his lonely home in Connecticut during Christmas.
The motley cast of characters are played to the hilt by Rep’s own homegrown performers: the hammy, pompous thespian Felix (Jeremy Domingo) and his secretive wife Madge (Christine Flores); up-and-coming actor Simon (Hans Eckstein) and his new bride, newbie actress Aggie (Mica Pineda); Gillette’s protective if bumblingly lovable mother Martha (Jay Valencia Glorioso, with Joy Virata alternating); and the wild card, journalist-cum-medium Daria Chase (Pinky Amador).
In this isolated mansion further blocked from the outside world by thickening snow, someone is bound to die. All the characters, supposed friends to each other, have their own dark secrets they would kill to keep hidden.
Ludwig knows the audience is aware of the elements of the genre and uses them to his advantage. The play becomes a guessing game with a ticking clock to see what—or who—each character would betray.
Then, just when it risks becoming too predictable, Ludwig throws a monkey wrench into the machinery. A murderer is revealed early in the game. A major player who everybody expects to deliver the needed twist gets dispatched too soon. He also keeps the pace fast by inserting a few instances of physical (not slapstick) humor that draws laughs.
Ludwig has a bit of fun as he make his characters spew out lines from famous playwrights and authors, including Shakespeare. Everybody does get a chance to show off, including the feisty, feminist inspector (Natalie Everett), who arrives late in the play to investigate a murder that did or did not happen.
Rep’s ensemble hits all the right notes, and they do seem to be enjoying themselves on stage. The chemistry among the actors, many of whom had played off each other for years, also adds to the realism of the bond that the stage company share.
It’s a family of rivals and friends who support, while trying to outdo, each other. There are no false notes, no false deliveries; like the make-believe Sherlock Holmes play that is happening on stage, it is a setting where everybody knows their paces and can anticipate and play off each other’s moves.
The identity of the killer did seem to come out of left field, which is probably Ludwig’s end-game. What was disconcerting, though, was the so-called twist at the end. It was a revelation related to something that had already been plainly discussed in the preceding scenes. So, instead of a big surprise, its repetition (or confirmation) left the audience, who had come to suspect this all along, scratching their heads.
It was an unexpected short fall after a long eventful journey. A glitch in that roller coaster ride that, with that one exception, kept you well diverted throughout.
Repertory Philippines’ production of Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot” runs at Greenbelt Onstage until Feb. 7. Call 8433570 or visit www.repertoryphilippines.com.ph or ticketworld.com.ph.