No Mystery: Go See CLUE at Hippodrome

Now through May 12th, 2024.

By: May. 08, 2024
No Mystery: Go See CLUE at Hippodrome
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The board game Clue has been a staple of the childhood and family recreation of almost everyone (having been licensed in the United States since 1950), and with its familiar characters, its spooky setting, its garish murder weapons, has embedded itself in the imaginations of generations. Small wonder, then, that at the packed opening night of the tour production of Clue - A New Comedy at the Hippodrome, numerous members of the audience were dressed up as characters. Cosplay would just naturally accompany a theatrical property such as this.

Board games and plays, however, are very different things. A well-written play will usually establish connections between character and action, motivating a plot that leads to an outcome grounded in some manner in character. Even in mystery plays, e.g. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, where traditionally each of the characters is a suspect, that organic connection of character and plot is usually preserved. But almost by definition a play based on the game of Clue would not be able to do that. The game notoriously has 342 possible solutions, involving six suspects, six murder weapons, and nine rooms, the winning combination having been randomly determined and hidden at the outset. The secret to winning the game is deploying an algorithm for asking questions, the opportunities to ask which are provided periodically by the topography of the mansion in which the playing pieces roam, as constrained by the outcomes of throws of the die. Character doesn’t come into it. The pieces may have names and be given characters of a sketchy sort, sketchily fleshed out by the artwork incorporated into game cards and boxes, but in the end, everything remains random.

When the game was first made into a 1985 movie with a screenplay by Jonathan Lynn, he tackled this problem by giving each of the six playing piece characters plus four additional cast members a hidden and suspicious back story, the unearthing of which was a major part of the show. This contrivance remained somewhat at odds with the randomness at the heart of the game, a problem that Lynn tried to solve by loading on comic repartee and endless slapstick comedy – and, in the end, by making fun of the randomness, by having the characters sprinting in tandem around the mansion, supposedly to try to game out how well each character’s alibi holds up, a joint effort that yields nothing but confusion. And then, after all that, there are still three possible outcomes, each hilariously dramatized.

The touring show onstage at the Hippodrome is based on Lynn’s movie, adapted by Sandy Rustin with additional material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price, in a rendering credited on the program to successive productions at Bucks County Playhouse and the Cleveland Play House, and, according at least to Playbill, refined to its present state at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. After all these refinements, the “solution” to the mystery has been effectively pureed, so that it seems as if everyone onstage did it, whatever “it” is (six corpses by the final curtain), and none of it matters at all.

What does matter is the production itself: the set, the costumes, the deliberate overacting, the slapstick, the slow-motion falling chandelier. (Move over, Phantom of the Opera!)

The set, designed by Lee Savage, is the thing that has to be praised first. Players of the board game, whether they think about it or not, will have internalized how much the hallway that is the connective tissue between the nine rooms (Billiard Room, Ballroom, etc.) in each of which a murder may have occurred (or be about to), together with the rooms themselves, is, in a real sense, the star of the game. It is the same with the show. Savage’s design allows us access not only to the hall but also to all the rooms, courtesy of turntables that allow us to enter some of them, together with flying elements that allow the rapid assembly of others. Together they celebrate opulence and wealth, and, of course, mystery and menace, starting with the front curtain design before the play starts, a prospect of the mansion from the outside, hung in a gilded frame, troubled by ominous storms.

Next, one should mention the incidental music by Michael Holland, which, even though this piece would not be characterized as a musical, plays a much more central role in this show than in most plays, together with what amounts to choreography at times (no choreographer is listed in the program, so one presumes director Casey Hushion gets the credit). At times spooky, at times frenetic, these elements are close to perfect.

The sound design, I’m sorry to say, didn’t work in this house. No doubt it’s harder to get right in traveling productions, but it was under-amplified and muddy where I sat, near the middle of the house, making it hard for me to understand many of the punchlines. In a comedy that largely relies on dialogue, this is a problem. It was particularly disappointing to me because I had just viewed the movie and had concluded that line delivery there was frequently off, and I had hoped would come across better onstage. Maybe it did, too; with the sound the way it was, I often couldn’t tell.

Fortunately, much of the show depends not on speech but on action: mugging, exaggerated actions and reactions, bodies tumbling through suddenly-opened doors, the aforementioned slow-falling chandelier effect combined with one character’s slow-moving reaction to it, an exaggerated and ridiculously protracted death scene, a wall suddenly opening up to reveal a secret passageway, a rewound-movie projector effect to separate and speed back to the beginnings of explanations of who was guilty and why.

Nonetheless, the performers deserve mention. The “game piece” players, Colonel Mustard (John Treacy Egan), Mrs. White (Tari Kelly, dressed inexplicably in black), Mrs. Peacock (a garrulous and dotty Joanna Glushak), Mr. Green (John Schartzer), Professor Plum (Jonathan Spivey), and Miss Scarlet (Michelle Elaine) were all excellent, whether trotting around the set in a pack, bickering, or trying to kill each other. (They are seen together in the ensemble photo posted with this review.) Mark Price as Wadsworth, the butler (who simply responds “I buttle” when asked what he does), is probably the most versatile of the group, a master of physical comedy, ably changing persona and voice when unmasked as someone who isn’t really a butler at all. Yvette (Elisabeth Yancey, sporting a mysterious foreign accent and a poufy short French maid’s skirt), the Cook and others (portrayed by Mariah Burks, who at one point is called upon to become a most pliable corpse), Mr. Boddy, the proprietor of the manse (can’t have murders without bodies, right?) (Alex Syiek, sporting a marvelous tough-guy accent from movies released in the era the game first was played), and The Cop, put-upon, locked up and lied to and even murdered, but still plodding gamely on (Teddy Trice), round out the cast. All are splendid.

So, even with that one major problem, whether to go see this show is no mystery. The solution: catch it while it’s here (through May 12th only).

Clue, by Sandy Rustin, with additional material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price, based on a screenplay by Jonathan Lynn, directed by Casey Hushion, through May 12 at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, 12 North Eutaw Street Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $47 to $172.50 at Clue - The Musical : Hippodrome Performing Arts Center : Tickets-Center.com.

Production Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.




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