Just because he plays a famous detective doesn’t mean he can’t be one. Or does it?
In Steel Beam Theatre’s production of the whodunit “Postmortem,” the mystery surrounding the death of an actress is examined by her castmates at the home of William Gillette, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes on stage for more than 30 years.
“It’s an interesting play. It was written by Ken Ludwig, who is well known as the author of ‘Lend me a Tenor,’ which is a farce. This play is not a farce,” Director Marge Uhlarik-Boller said. “What Ludwig did with this show is take a personality who really lived, and put him at the center of a mystery.”
Gillette, who was an actor, playwright and stage manager in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is best known for his portrayal of Holmes — one that helped popularize the image of the detective in a deer-stalker hat and cape and using a curved pipe. After becoming a successful actor, Gillette built his own castle, which still exists in Hadlyme, Conn., called the Gillette Castle, Uhlarik-Boller said.
“Postmortem,” which opens Jan. 10 at Steel Beam in St. Charles, is set in 1922 at the castle.
“The play takes place on a weekend a year after one of the leading actresses in the current Sherlock Holmes play committed suicide, we think,” said Uhlarik-Boller, who lives in Elgin. “But of course she didn’t commit suicide, and the characters that are assembled there are the suspects.”
“Gillette is the centerpiece of the show. And because he has played Sherlock Holmes so long, theoretically he has absorbed some of his detective skills,” she said.
That Steel Beam’s production comes at a time when Sherlock Holmes mysteries are seeing a spike in popularity with the television shows “Elementary” on CBS and “Sherlock” on PBS/BBC is coincidental. Typically, the theater schedules a mystery for its January production, said Donna Steele, artistic director and founder of Steele Beam Theatre.
“This has happened to us a number of times, when (on the children’s stage) we’re putting on a fairy tale and all of a sudden it’s a movie,” Steele said.
Featuring seven cast members from Chicago and the suburbs, “Postmortem” required Steel Beam to hire a fight choreographer/violence coordinator, said Uhlarik-Boller, who has directed more than 75 shows.
“The show has an uncommon amount of violence in it, meaning times when people have to hit each other, slap each other, shoot at each other, grab each other, run away from each other,” she said. “There’s a whole safety protocol that’s involved with choreography.”
It’s been fun for the cast and crew seeing the choreography come together for the different actions on stage, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of camaraderie in the cast. It’s a great group of people who know each other and worked together before. And that always makes for an ensemble, which is the ideal,” she said. “That’s what you want when you work.”
The show, she said, runs about two hours with intermission and is filled with “some good twists and turns.”
“It will be a wonderful diversion during this incredible cold and snowy winter. Mysteries are always fun,” Uhlarik-Boller said. “And there is a definite question mark. I think for most of the play there’s a lot of red herrings so you don’t know who the killer is.”