The game is afoot.
The phrase, first penned by Shakespeare and best known for when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes out on a case, seems highly appropriate for the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre production of the suspenseful comedy “Clue on Stage.” The show opens Thursday at The Oxford.
As several actors pointed out in a phone interview before rehearsal, the show entertains in its own right, which no doubt is why the production has seen success theatrically and cinematically. But it’s certain to spark memories tied to the beloved board game and the hours spent with family and friends determining the murderer, weapon and room where it happened.
In some cases, those experiences continue, such as for Rebecca Sterr, who plays Miss Scarlet.
“My family currently plays the game,” she said. “Every chance we get — it’s fun.”
Kathi Baker, in the role of Mrs. White, didn’t even need company to enjoy the game.
“I was an only child, and I used to play the game by myself because I loved it that much,” she said. “I grew up playing my mom’s original board game version that had an actual rope and an actual lead pipe in it.”
For Ron Bower, who’s Col. Mustard, it’s been a while since he and family members sat down at the board together.
“We played as a family growing up,” he said. “I haven’t played it in years, but I did discover that there’s a digital one you can play off an iPhone, and I’ve played it a couple times. But it’s not as much fun as playing the board game.”
Janelle McDonald, cast as Mrs. Peacock, shared that playing the game has turned into extended family fun.
“I grew up playing the game as well,” she said. “I would play it with my parents a lot, and then now as I’m older and have kids of my own, they’ve reached the ages where I just within the last year taught them how to play. Now that’s a favorite when we go over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and we have the three generations all playing together.”
Board to screen to stage
The film version of “Clue” came out in 1985 and has gone on to have a cult following despite modest box office success. That status, the actors said, might be due to how creators made the movie like the game. Three different endings were shot, and movie theaters received one of the three versions. When it appeared on DVD, the set included all three of the endings, which inspired binge viewing.
The cast is preparing for the possibility some audience members may be among the film’s devotees.
“I think that part of the pressure of being in this cast is because that movie has become such a cult classic,” Baker said. “There are lines in it that people know by heart. So for us it’s a lot of pressure to deliver those with our own spin but respecting the original characters and the original actors that did it.”
That’s especially true for Baker, who’s taking on the character portrayed on screen by the famed comedic actress Madeline Kahn. “She has some lines that are on T-shirts and, we just discovered, face masks,” Baker said.
Bower, who saw the stage musical that premiered in the 1990s (predating the nonmusical comedy), agreed that the home video option means the cast can count on knowledgeable fans.
“That’s part of the fun of the movie, but it’s also, as Kathi said, a lot of the pressure for us, and we have to be on our A game every night for this,” he said.
Alexander Breck, portraying Professor Plum, also commented on the star power in the film.
“Madeline Kahn played Mrs. White, and Tim Curry was in it, and all these incredible actors and actresses of that time. … I think people fell in love with it because of those characters and those actors. It’s a lot to live up to.” (Other stars in the movie are Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren.)
Enjoying the play doesn’t depend on knowing the game, but apparently some knowledge will pay off.
“There’s a few subtle things we do that only people who know the game will know,” Bower said. “I won’t give them away, but they will know it just from that.”
Among the show’s acting challenges, Sterr suggested, is keeping things moving.
“I think what’s interesting is this is a comedy but it’s about a murder,” she said. “So it is a little melodramatic, but it’s incredibly fast-paced and the comedic timing has to be precise. We not only have to know our own lines but we have to know our fellow cast mates’ lines because it’s so fast. It’s very intense and it’s very fast.”
Stamina would be another requirement, according to Breck.
“Once all of us enter we never leave,” he said. “It kind of kicks off from there and we just go on with the show. So we’re onstage like the entire time, and it’s very fast-paced so it’s just getting all those meticulous things down and all the comedic timing right.”
But having their parts memorized means it’s time to play, Breck continued.
“Just trying new things, I think, is the most fun part of this experience,” he said. “Once we’ve got the lines down we can just try as much as we can and then that pulls into the physical humor as well. We’re just trying to stay socially distanced I guess — stay as safe as possible.”
The 90-minute show has no intermission.
“We go continuously throughout that process, and there are some parts where we’re running around stage literally,” Baker said. “There are parts where we exit the stage where the audience can’t see us and then we appear magically in another part of the stage.”
Some of the standout physical humor, Baker said, comes from Wadsworth the butler, played by actor Theodore Linder. His sequence, near the end, “is like the highlight of the whole show,” she said.
The camaraderie has been one of joys of the experience.
“We laugh every single rehearsal because all of us are always coming up with some new twist or some different way to present something, so that makes it a lot of fun,” Baker said.
Five weeks into rehearsals, “We laugh at each other’s lines still,” added Bower.
“We have to stop doing that, by the way,” Sterr quipped, prompting a chorus of laughter.
Just as the game Clue prompts warm thoughts of family time at home, performing in the show reminds actors of the opposite sensation: getting out and acting in a production and delivering fun for a live audience. That experience has been in short supply since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Sterr was in the cast of “Newsies,” which the Children’s Theatre performed last summer at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Chippewa Falls. During that production she noticed the joy — and the safety precautions the company is taking for its shows. A list of the precautions can be found on their website: tinyurl.com/y49uw3k6.
“Theater across the country is completely dark,” Sterr said. “So for us to be able to have the opportunity just as we did this summer, people miss it, people really miss it. Even if you have to wear masks, you don’t even realize the masks are there after a while. They disappear.”
“Clue on Stage” is Baker’s first Children’s Theatre show since “Mary Poppins” last March.
“I was desperately missing being onstage, and I’m so excited to be part of this cast,” she said. “I’ve been unemployed for several months and am home-schooling my kids and all this kind of stuff, and so taking a break from all of that is also important for my sanity and this is where I get that break.”
Bower is performing in his first theater production since last spring, when he was in the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s “Morning’s at Seven.” The pandemic force that production to close in the middle of its run.
“So I wasn’t quite sure that I was going to get another opportunity this year to be onstage,” he said. “It’s just a great thing that we’re doing, and hopefully people get to come and see it.”
As the actors’ appreciation of performing suggests, the benefits of presenting live theater, in this place and time, can be seen as more than a game — even a show based on Clue.