As we waited in the lobby of San Francisco's Boxcar Theatre to take our seats for Clue, now through February 19, 2011, the house manager cheerfully informed us that the play we were about to see is best experienced after having watched the 1985 movie of the same name no less than five times. Further, and I'm paraphrasing here, but not much, it would help if we were drunk.
I think that's actually pretty good advice, but not because this 2011 play based on the 1985 movie, which was based on the late-1940s board game (did I mention the action is set in 1954?), requires repetition and alcohol to be enjoyed. I haven't seen Clue, the movie, since I watched it on the silver screen, and the other evening I was actually somewhat sober. Despite these limitations, I had a grand time.
The point of the preparatory speech, I think, is that Clue, as re-re-imagined by Peter Matthews and Nick A. Olivero, is a farce of a farce, a lark, an evening of theater only to the extent that it features actors, lighting, sound effects and the rest. Mostly it's an engaging experiment to see if this quixotic gambit can be pulled off. Most of the time Matthews and Olivero succeed. And during those moments when their conceit falls flat? Well, a few ticks of the clock takes care of that.
The writer-directors, who also perform, are aided by the play's set (Olivero gets credit for that, too) and seating that's been customized for this production. The stage sits at the bottom of a square pit, which is ringed by a single row of seats built on top of the set's walls, which means the audience is perched roughly 6-to-8 feet above the action. The floor of the stage resembles the game's board, complete with squares that the actors must sometimes follow, step-by-step, rooms (the Lounge, the Ballroom, etc.) and props featured in both the board game (the Candlestick, the Leap Pipe, et al) and the movie.
Not every seat in the house has a perfect view. For example, it's physically impossible to see what's going on directly below you, and I could not see the part of the performance that takes place offstage and behind the row of seats to my left, even though those to my right could view it just fine. No matter. It was obvious enough what was going on.
Besides, the real fun happens when the actors are crowded onto the stage, shuffling from room to room, cramming themselves behind pantomime walls. The acting is not subtle, but it's not supposed to be. My favorite performance was by J. Conrad Frank as Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock. Frank infuses his character with the energy and volume of a drag queen -- literally. He's simply hilarious. Meanwhile, Sarah Savage as Lesley Ann Warren as Miss Scarlett does a terrific Marilu Henner, which suits Savage better than Warren. So what if she got the actor wrong; she nails the decade, and somehow that seems more important.
If you're getting the impression that Clue at once adheres to and strays from its movie roots, you're correct. Olivero, for example, does not do Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard. He reminded me more of an American-accented Dr. Watson who's lost his Sherlock Holmes. And quite understandably, Justin Liszanckie doesn't even try to mimic the signature rasp of Christopher Lloyd. Instead, he works his pipe and channels his inner letch.
At its best, Clue winks at its audience with clever inside jokes, like when the word "editing" is repeatedly used as a punch line. At its worst, the writers seem content to merely move themselves and their fellow actors around the stage like so many plastic pieces. Still, I'm glad Matthews and Olivero did not get too creative: If they had made their play into a musical, for example, I might have been obliged to hang myself, with the Rope, in the Conservatory.
Clue runs through February 19, 2011 at Boxcar Theatre. For tickets and information visit boxcartheatre.org.
All photos: Peter Liu.