Member Login

Summer Dinner Theater at NKU Begins with Mystery

Do you love mysteries? Try this: It’s December 1936. At the height of the Great Depression, Broadway star William Gillette invites fellow cast members to his Connecticut castle for a weekend of holiday revelry.
 
In no time there’s a murder.
 
Good thing Gillette played Sherlock Holmes more than 1,300 times on stage, plus a silent movie and on radio. (He even wrote the play! And gave Holmes his curved meerschaum pipe!) If anybody knows how to solve a mystery... 
 
Mystery-comedy “The Game’s Afoot” opens Commonwealth Theatre Company’s summer dinner theater season at Northern Kentucky University, running June 11-29. The play is by Ken Ludwig, author of hits including “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You.” “The Game’s Afoot” won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Play in 2012.
 
Ludwig knows how to keep audiences happy, and part of the fun in “The Game’s Afoot” is that it’s inspired by the real Gillette – an international star 100 years ago -- and his real castle (built for $1 million during WWI, with profits from “Sherlock Homes.”) His expansive house (built on a bluff high above the Connecticut River) was tricked out with hidden passages, hidden compartments, a disappearing dinner table, a series of mirrors placed so that Gillette could sit in his bedroom and see who was coming through the front door. And Gillette really did invite cast members home for weekend parties. 
 
Now that the scene is set, back to murder. The cast includes NKU faculty Sandra Forman and Mike King and familiar faces Christine Jones, Liz Comstock, and Mindy Heithaus.
 
It’s Rodger Pille who plays party host Gillette, who takes on his Sherlock Holmes persona to solve the crime. He took time out from his detecting to answer a few questions.
 
Q: Are you a Sherlock Holmes fan?
 
Pille: I adore detective stories and always have. When I was a kid I wanted to be either a private eye or the Pope. Neither obviously worked out. Ah, well, acting provides me ample chances to be everything I never was. 
 
Sherlock books were a big hit when I was a young reader, but admittedly I became more of a Philip Marlowe fan in my adulthood. I think I just related more to the wise-cracking, booze-swilling detective. Sherlock, though flawed in his own ways, was too damn smart for me to personally relate to.
 
Q: Were you familiar with Gillette?
 
Pille: I was not familiar with Gillette at all. But it's been a fun journey, reading up on him and listening to old recordings. That's one of the great joys of doing theatre, these new discoveries. I like to think it makes me that much more prepared for the next cocktail party or game show audition. 
 
Theatre people know a little about a lot. We're students of life and very much in touch with our emotions. That's a dangerous combination.
 
Q: When Gillette takes on the character of Holmes, does he pull out the deerstalker and pipe?
 
Pille: Getting to play around with the pipe for the first time the other day must have been what it was like when Mark Hamill was given his light saber on the set of “Star Wars.” The kid in me couldn't stop giggling with excitement, but I also felt a weighty responsibility on my shoulders not to screw it up.
 
Q: Who do you suspect and why?
 
Pille: With this ridiculously talented cast, every single one of them could conceivably do it. And every one of them will make you laugh even while you suspect them. It's very disconcerting, but makes for a great whodunit!
 
Q: Why did you invite a murderer home for Christmas?
 
Pille: It's still safer than eating the fruitcake. I mean, I'm a risk taker naturally. But even I have my limits.
 
Q: Why do actors like Ken Ludwig’s work as much as audiences?
 
Pille: His tone is like no other. Whip-smart writing, but with a playful, winking attitude. Corrie Danieley, our fearless and endlessly patient director, has been talking a lot lately in rehearsals about finding the right balance between reality and heightened reality. 
 
I like to think we're starting at a real place, but as Act One ends, we start the mad dash toward the finale that is just this side of looney tunes.
 
Finally, here are two fun facts:Gillette used a curved pipe instead of Arthur Conan Doyle’s straight one so the audience would be able to see his face.
 
You can join 100,000 visitors who annually tour Gillette Castle in Hadlyme, Connecticut.
 
“The Game’s Afoot,” June 11-29, Northern Kentucky University Fine Arts Center, Highland Heights. Tuesday-Saturday: Dinner 6:30, performance 8 p.m., Sunday: Dinner 5 p.m. performance 6:30 p.m. Tickets: $30 (dinner and show), $55 for two. Show only: $15, limited availability. 859-572-5464
 
Photo: (L to R) Rodger Pille, Liz Comstock, Mike King, and Christine Jones in Commonwealth Theatre Company's The Game's Afoot. (Photo by Tyler Gabbard/provided)