(Above: Part of the cast of The Game’s Afoot at The Very Little Theatre includes, left to right, Michael Walker as William Gillette, Heather Hinz as Madge Geisel and Tom Wilson as Felix Geisel; photo by Chris McVay)

By Randi Bjornstad

First a little background. There really once was an American actor/playwright named William Gillette, who practically made an entire career out of playing the part of Sherlock Holmes. Gillette was born in 1853 and died in 1937. He not only played the famous detective on stage a lot, Gillette also starred as Holmes in a silent movie made in 1916, which was assumed to be lost until it was miraculously found in some archives 98 years later, in 2014.

The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia — Conan Doyle was the British author who created the famous literary character — says that Gillette played Holmes 1,300 times, which amazingly is only the third-most number of times for an actor in that role, behind H. Hamilton Stewart (2,000 times) and H.A. Saintsbury (1,400 times).

In fact, Gillette and Conan Doyle collaborated on a Sherlock Holmes play which became an instant success, and Gillette went on to perform it until 1932, five years before his death at age 83.

So, in The Game’s Afoot, set in 1936 New York City, playwright Ken Ludwig has created the character of William Gillette as a Broadway star playing Sherlock Holmes, who comes to take the role perhaps a bit too seriously after someone makes an attempt on his life at the theater one night.

Gillette — played in The Very Little Theatre production by Michael Walker — invites the company to the Gillette Mansion on Christmas Eve where, lo and behold, a successful murder takes place, leading Gillette to take on his Sherlock Holmes persona to try to figure out “whodunit.”

In that sense, it’s kind of a play within a play, which delights director Chris Pinto, who’s a real fan of playwright Ludwig’s work.

“I was the play committee chairman at VLT this year, and we were looking at The Game’s Afoot as one of our possible plays for the season, but it had no director attached to it at that point,” Pinto said. “It was selected, based on its great combination of comedy and mystery, and I kept waiting for a director to come forward and volunteer to do it, but no one asked, so I said I would because I have directed a Ken Ludwig play before and love his scripts.”

Others obviously admire them, too, because The Game’s Afoot won the Mystery Writers of America’s 2012 Edgar Award for Best Play. When the play was produced in Cleveland, Ohio, the Plain Dealer newspaper review offered a tantalizing come-on: “There are twists in playwright Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot that cause the audience to gasp.”

Back to the plot, which is a bit twisty. Gillette has invited the theater company to come to his home to try to figure out who tried to off him, and no sooner are they gathered than another murder happens. Then the task is to try to figure out who — one of them, perhaps? — has done that murder, which is complicated when Gillette’s own mother, who may or may not be in control of her faculties, says she did it, and Gillette has to figure out how to protect her from her confession. Someone calls the police, the body gets hidden, there’s darkness and a storm and a seance to try to call up the murder victim — the doorman from the theater — to see if his ghost can shed any light on the subject.

And then there’s the Shakespeare connection. The title of the play refers to William Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, which both mention the phrase in the context of hunters after a quarry that’s trying to elude them, which fits the plot here as the theater company tries to catch the culprit seemingly in their midst.

“Ken Ludwig loves Shakespeare, and he does here what Shakespeare does in his comedies, which is to keep the audience guessing and provide comic relief when necessary,” Pinto said. “That’s why there are Shakespeare-like elements in this play, and they really help keep it moving.”

He’s very happy with the cast of the play, although there was a nearly last-minute casting change when actor Paul Rhoden jumped off a platform during a rehearsal and injured his knee. Luckily, actor Tom Wilson was available to step into the breach with only a couple of weeks before the opening, “so there has been some adversity and some tension getting this play together,” Pinto admitted. “But this is a great group, and they will do a great show.”

In addition to Tom Wilson, the cast includes Michael Walker in the lead role as William Gillette, along with Carol Massaho, Heather Hinz, Matthew Arscott, Sabrina Gross, Jen Ferro, and Erica Towe.

Michael Walker also designed the set, with costumes by Michael Watkins.

Oh, and a little more background. Back in 1914, during World War I, the real William Gillette was staying in a  temporarily in a London hotel when he came back one day and found two detectives — perhaps alerted because Gillette was foreign and not known at that establishment — rifling through his belongings, where they found the floor plans for the British Embassy in Paris.

They threatened to arrest him as a potential spy and take him to Scotland Yard. Gillette explained that he was leaving the next day for America, where he was going to be in a play called Diplomacy that had been onstage in London for a year and had a scene in Act 3 that takes place in the British Embassy in Paris, and he wanted to make sure it was staged correctly.

Gillette was detained in the hotel room overnight until Scotland Yard was able to get Arthur Conan Doyle on the telephone to vouch for his friend and theater collaborator, who finally was released just in time to catch his ship, the Baltic, the next day.

The Game’s Afoot

When: Evenings at 7:30 p.m. on June 7-8, 13-15, and 20-22; matinees at 2 p.m. on June 9, and 16; the opening night show is followed by a post-show gala with refreshments

Where: The Very Little Theatre, 2350 Hilyard St., Eugene

Tickets: $21; $17 for senior citizens and students and all Thursday performances, available at the box office, 541-344-7751, from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, or online at TheVLT.com; listening devices available for the hearing impaired on a first-come basis