Anyone with enough ambition to cook the perfect holiday meal knows what an amazing balancing act it all is. Some items are easily whipped up while others take patience and a perfect sense of timing.

The Santa Paula Theatre Center has cooked up one fine holiday meal, though for someone, it may be deadly.

William Gillette (Goran Ivanovski at his David Niven finest) isn’t the real Sherlock Holmes, but he plays one on stage. When a real-life bad guy shoots him from the audience during a performance, Willie invites a cast of friends and foes to his Connecticut mansion for some Christmas merriment — and perhaps a chance to find out who took a shot at him.

Ken Ludwig’s script hits all the right notes. Set during the radio era of the 1930s, the story is a perfect blend of snowy American holiday, a lot of comedy and a Sherlock Holmes whodunit.

Director Fred Helsel chose the right people to deliver Holmes. Newcomer Art Peters’ comedic timing for some heavy lifting in the second act when the dead body of their least favorite theatre critic (Peggy Steketee) needs to be stashed from a very Fargo-esque police detective (Sindy McKay). If she can’t figure out who the murderer is, perhaps she could just ask Madge (Penny Krevenas), who pretends to be hypnotized and points an accusing finger at . . . the real murderer!

Two stars are those lesser seen, specifically sound designer Chris Grote and stage manager Megan Brister. The quality of the sound and the spot-on delivery in a cue-heavy play are noteworthy. The roar of thunder, barking dog, the spin of a hidden wall panel that becomes a dry bar — the crew’s efforts are a holiday recipe that truly works.

Willie plans to convalesce with his friends and his doting, air-headed mother (Rosemary Bird) among a pageantry of clever spy tools worthy of any G-man. Set designer Mike Carnahan meticulously decorated the room with the kinds of weapons and expensive gadgets suitable for any Holmes wannabe. “This is where God would live if he could afford it,” says one guest. And it’s just the perfect place for sleuth Willie to catch his attempted murderer.

And along with the comedy and mystery come moments of wisdom. When Willie talks about the life of an actor, he laments how “We put on silly costumes and wear noses of putty, because that’s what they want us to do, all those gray-faced accountants.” And one senses there’s more afoot here than just a game.

It’s a wonderful holiday feast Santa Paula Theatre has delivered. Pull up a chair (or a gun, or a rope, or a knife) and enjoy.


The Game’s Afoot: Or Holmes for the Holidays, through Dec. 21, Santa Paula Theatre Center,125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. 525-4645 or www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.