Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Clue: On Stage
As is obligatory for any juicy murder mystery, our evening begins with a night-time thunder-and-lightning storm that casts threatening shadows on the marble floor of the mansion laid out before us. Soon, the six guests–all strangers (or then, maybe not)–are received at the door one-by-one by Wadsworth, the butler, who assigns each to one of the now-famous pseudonyms. They are led on a tour of the house, hearing that the Boddy Mansion is named for Lord Boddy, who "discovered an antibody that would save everybody"–just one of dozens of puns that pepper the never-too-serious script.
After Wadsworth announces in paraphrased Holmes fashion, "The game will now be afoot," the guests finally meet their host, Mr. Boddy. We and they discover that they all are Washington, D.C. residents who have been blackmailed for some time by Mr. Boddy for indiscretions that range from taking bribes for political favors to becoming a widow under suspicious circumstances to being a Republican Party bigwig in the closet who did not vote for Eisenhower. After presenting his guests their wrapped gifts of possible weapons, Mr. Boddy announces that one of them must, this very evening, murder Wadsworth, who knows of their secrets and has alerted the police to arrive in forty-five minutes. Not doing so will mean that Boddy will double their blackmail payments. Before they can protest, all lights go out and a shot is heard. As the lights come back on, the body of Boddy is on the floor with nobody taking claim of who did it (Jesse Cortez plays the Boddy body and will later reappear as other bodies).
And now the real fun begins, much to the credit of the eleven-person ensemble's direction by Hillbarn's former artistic director, Dan Demers. As the six guests traipse through the hallways, nooks and crannies of this nine-room house of doom–especially for anyone who works there, like the cook or maid–they often wander together wide-eyed and open-mouthed as a roving amoeba or as a linked inchworm. The timing of more lights out and thumps and bumps in the dark is exacting, as dead bodies begin to collect and need to be hidden away before the cops arrive.
As each guest tries to figure out who is the next to do what to whom and where, hilarity of the sort reminiscent of 1950s TV sitcoms like "I Love Lucy" reigns. And as they wonder who among them is the villain, the audience somehow must find time between frequent rounds of guffawing to piece together the clues to determine the who, what, and where of the last shot, choke, thud or stab.
The moving pieces of the board game that have come to life before us are an extraordinarily eclectic, eccentric collection of comedic oddballs. Colonel Mustard (Mohamed Ismail) struts around in knee-high boots and jacket laden with medals, making nonsensical statements that do nothing to build anyone's admiration for his intellect even as speaks in military style assuredness. Professor Plum (Jay Thulien) has trouble in between occasional psychological diagnoses keeping his eyes or hands off the likes of the skimpily clad French maid, Yvette (hilariously played with cartoonish mannerisms and accent by Jocelyn Pickett) while Mr. Green (Steve Allhoff) always seems a bit jumpy, looking over his shoulder as if his self-imposed closet may be hiding more than just his homosexuality.
Dressed all in black, Mrs. White (Hayley Lovgren) often has no expression beyond tightly pursed lips and eyes full of suspicion of others. Mrs. Peacock (J. Conrad Frank) is nothing but an exploding exposition of expression as she flutters, flitters, and sometimes falls in a false faint; her singsong vocals that border on hysterics usually only hush long enough for her to take another drink from her flask or a nearby bottle from the mansion's bar.
Finally, there is Miss Scarlett (Maria Marquis), who arrives in a sleek and stylish evening dress in a color to match her assigned name, presenting herself as a 1950s mixture of Scarlett O'Hara and of Marilyn Monroe with a bit of Hedy Lamarr thrown in to underscore her seductive manners.
Pamela Lampkin ensures we remember each character's name through the hues and hints she employs in designing their evening wear. Mrs. Peacock's swinging, satin skirt of many petticoats twirls about as the feathers in her hair flicker in the air, and J. Conrad Frank's over-the-top drag performance is even more a highlight of the evening due to Pamela Lampkin's tongue-in-cheek costume genius. The humor is also overflowing with White dressed in black, Plum and Green in suits subtly to match their names, and Mustard sticking out as a Colonel with ascot, vest and coat all hovering in a mustard-color range. Kudos also to Jenny Maupin for hair and wig designs, with the red-topped Peacock being especially outrageous.
The many rooms of the Boddy Mansion appear through the manic magic of Eric Olson's scenic design, where door frames dancing across the flat-floor stage of the Hillbarn lead to suddenly appearing rooms that vary from a library of books, a study with fireplace and comfy couch, and a dining room where all the suspects sit shoulder-to-shoulder with faces full of the guilt of their blackmailed faults (if not also of a murder or two). Populating the rooms are properties designed by Rosie Issel that include weapons of murder and sometimes the puppet bodies of the murdered themselves. Combined with Sophia Craven's precisely timed lighting scheme of sudden blackouts and spotlights on the probable guilty, and with Sheraj Ragoobeer's sound design of storms, vicious guard dogs (no escape from this evening's dinner party), and of course of shots, thuds, and whacks on the head, the creative team under Dan Demers' direction plays as big a role as the cast itself in making the evening a rambunctious, riotous night.
If the first sixty or so minutes are not enough for those desiring a ninety-minute, laugh-filled escape from the not-so-funny world we all are now experiencing, the last ten-minutes provide a complete resolution to all the night's many mysteries. The climactic accusations and confessions also provide Miyaka Pical Cochrane as Wadsworth (or is he really Wadsworth?) a chance to send the audience into final howls as he takes his extended leave in a manner that is slapstick at its silly best.
Clue: On Stage at times does wear us down with its overly exaggerated and sophomoric antics and puns, and anyone who does not enjoy a full-on farce should probably stay home. But as an evening of escape, of cleverly designed mystery, and of excellent work by an ensemble who work hard for every chuckle they so well deserve, Hillbarn Theatre's Clue: On Stage is a ticket well-worth acquiring.
Clue: On Stage runs through June 19, 2022, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.