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When the Poinsettias Turn to Tonic

By: Riley Mann

The game is afoot these next two weekends, and the poinsettias are beginning to resemble some far-off crimson.

The Cast of The Game's Afoot at the Dutch Country Playhouse (left to right): Dan Wentzel (William Gillette), Jean Laustsen (Martha Gillette), Tiffany Peoples (Daria Chase), Madison Niness (Aggie Wheeler), and Liz Aber (Madge Geisel). Courtesy of Stephen Gordon Studios.

My mind fixates on the abundance of poinsettias on the stage…poinsettias embroidered in the stretch between the arms of the couch center stage, poinsettias in the green vases on the floor, a poinsettia broach on Martha Gillette (portrayed through the cooly elastic glamour carried by Jean Laustsen). We bring poinsettias to the table during the holiday season to preserve our goodwill. We wear them like broaches because it keeps the purity of community alive, or at the very least make “pure intentions” the forefront of the culture for a brief margin before the dead of winter. The wielding bracts leave no comparison for love and rage. It takes a particular ensemble (a party of theatergoers) and a certain exigence (the fold between money, sex, and murder) to reframe this poinsettian paradigm; it takes a seance to illustrate this fold with such merrymaking craftsmanship.

Oblivion jades the Gillette Castle; the bitterness of the Connecticut winter is an ironic contrast to the wild Northeastern haze lingering outside of the theater’s walls. This is far from pointsettian. In this realization, the flower embodies a campy aura that laces the impulsivity of the character ensemble: individuals who view death as a convenience as well as an inconvenience, infidelity as a thrilling and distressing digression, and transparency as anything but the raw truth. I now classify the poinsettias on the stage as a byproduct of a queer decision of theatrical jurisdiction; I am challenged by the inquiry of what we can learn from a holiday production presenting itself on the eve of the summer — a show whose satirical humor of the murder mystery genre unveils in an inversely holistic manner; the crux of the satire requires a certain stature contained in the core of the ensemble of actors aggregationally. And I knew this core burned center stage, bouncing off of the brick wall in the fold between the velvet red curtains in the first scene… the wall where William Gillette (played by Dan Wentzel) pleaded for assistance after a shadowed assassin shot him in the shoulder after a curtain call in a New York City theater. Gillette returned to his Connecticut estate in hopes of a speedy recovery, now spending his hours with his mother and not his band of fellow performers.

From left to right: Liz Aber (Madge Geisel), Ray Greenley (Felix Geisel), and Dan Wentzel (William Gillette). Courtesy of Stephen Gordon Studios.

When the scene turned, and New York was only a memory, I took notice of the central living space of Gillette Castle: with perched guns stage left, and axes and knives as the stage inclined rightward. I knew in an instant that these items would transform from a mere facilitator of decorum once the stage began to become less open, crowded to the brim by the bodies of Gillette’s visitors, to a reddening exertion that allows the poinsettias to dim. Despite the small talk regarding the poinsettias of marriage from the Geisels (Felix Geisel, played by Ray Greenley; Madge Geisel, played by Liz Aber) as well as Simon Bright (played by Nick Cardillo) and Aggie Wheeler (played by Madison Niness), the parliament of their love is immediately threatened by the silk-and-satin voice of Daria Chase (played by Tiffany Peoples), whose punctuality as a reporter and a threat to stable domesticity stabs the illusion of the life the ensemble leads through carefree transparency and countless sips of whiskey. As the poinsettias begin to darken, a tonic trickles off the point of their edge, and the cloak over this Christmas Eve night billows into a faux smoke cloud rooting from the pipe William Gillette keeps in his fingers, under the shade of a perfect deerstalker and a stalking reservation to Holmes-ify the horrors of the night which dwindle into a vicariously interactive experience that compulsively confines me to my notebook as I attempt to unveil the show’s brilliant comic mystique. The game is afoot these next two weekends, and the poinsettias are beginning to resemble some far-off crimson.

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