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The game’s afoot!

"Holmes for the Holidays" hilariously and endearingly subverts the tropes of murder mysteries

When the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes-portraying actor gets wrapped up in a mystery, what does he do? What would Holmes do? Photo credit: Dennis K Photography

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There are few entertainments better than a cracking good murder mystery, and no one more synonymous with the genre than Sherlock Holmes -- a character that's been deconstructed and reinterpreted in a dizzyingly large number of ways. Holmes for the Holidays (or The Game's Afoot, depending on who you ask) further subverts the tropes of a Holmes mystery by centering it around William Gillette, a very real actor who gained worldwide fame by portraying Holmes onstage for some 30 years. Gillette's take on Holmes is where we get many of the attributes we associate with the character, such as the deerstalker hat and the eccentric pipe.

Set in 1936, we first see Gillette (Dave Champagne) taking a bow after another performance as Holmes when a rogue audience member makes an attempt on his life, but only ending up shooting him in the arm. A couple weeks later, as Gillette is recuperating at his Connecticut cabin, he invites his fellow cast members over for Christmas: loyal longtime acting partner Felix (Blake R. York), Felix's wife and fellow actor Madge (Heidi Walworth-Horn), young ingenue Aggie (Robin Mae Becar), and the agreeably dopey Simon (Frank Roberts). Also at the cabin is Gillette's mother Martha (Lissa Valentine), and soon to arrive is Daria Chase (Danielle Locken), who is guilty of being that most foul of characters: a theater critic!

It isn't long before Gillette is inducing his company to help in solving the mystery of who tried to kill him -- the recently discovered body of a stagehand who may have known too much indicates that the killer really means business. And it wouldn't be a good murder mystery if some more bloodshed didn't happen at the cabin itself, throwing the whole investigation into chaos. Secrets get revealed, grudges get exposed, and the old trope of the hidden room becomes a pesky and hilarious running gag.

Part of the joy of this show is how it leans up against farce, with a house full of amateur sleuths frantically drawing on the cliches of the genre to solve a real murder. For as much as Gillette seems to truly believe that he has the mind of the great Sherlock Holmes, when it comes time to move a body (or, indeed, to even notice that there is a body), all facades of deduction and reasoning fly out the window. Later on, when an actual inspector (Anne Marie Rutt) arrives, the dynamic between her and Gillette is like a take on that classic truth of comedians wanting to be rock stars and rock stars wanting to be comedians: while Gillette longs to be a great detective, the inspector dreams of one day becoming a Broadway star.

As directed by Jennifer York, Holmes for the Holidays is a breezy, endearing comedy that provides a serviceable mystery at its center; Holmes himself may have solved it all in just a few minutes, but then we'd miss out on all the madcap fun produced by this outstanding ensemble cast.

HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS, 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Dec. 29, added performance Dec. 26, $25; $23 students, seniors, military; $20 kids younger than 12, Tacoma Little Theatre,

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