The Maverick Theater takes on the most produced play of the decade
by Joel Beers
The murder mystery is one of theater’s sturdiest staples and over the years there have been those that were smart, intricately plotted, suspenseful, chilling and psychologically probing.
“Clue,” at the Maverick Theater, is none of those. Which just might be a reason why, in the admittedly truncated decade of the 2020s, the 2019 stage adaptation of the 1985 film based on the 1949 board game is the most produced play in the country: 1,026 productions with at least 150 more scheduled the rest of the year.
Director Brian Newell doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that a board game that was created by an English factory worker during World War II who was stuck at home because of air raid blackouts has been so heartily embraced by those who have had their fair share of sheltering at home the past two years.
“This isn’t one of those mysteries that invites the audience to unravel the mystery, or gets them so caught up in the suspense that they can’t turn away,” says Newell. “It’s a broad, fast-moving show with one-liners and comedic bits.”
There is murder, references to high-end brothels and blackmail and all kinds of secrets revealed or teased tear the veneer from the stately country mansion where everything takes place. But it is also, after all, based on a board game that had no story and literally paper-thin character types, and the 1985 film didn’t try to flesh out the lack of plot or character depth as much as make the story’s mystery subordinate to the intentionally over-the-top characters and relentlessly corny dialogue.
That doesn’t mean there’s no effort required from the cast or production crew. As the saying goes, in the theater dying is easy but funny is hard, and when everyone is in on the joke it takes skill and craft by an actor to avoid making those winks to the house so overt that the audience stops caring about the joke. At its most basic level, theater is all about pretending, and if the pretense of making something not true appear to be true vanishes, then all we’ve got is a bunch of over-emoting weirdos running around talking funny. And that’s what superhero films are for.
There’s nothing pretend about the key component of the set. This is a Maverick Theater show and if the subject isn’t big (like the sprawling Civil War epic “The Killer Angels,” or a former President of the United States eviscerating himself on national television in “Frost/Nixon”), then it’s a good bet that there will be something big about the production. This is, after all, the theater that wasn’t content to adapt the original “King Kong” film to the stage; it also had to incorporate live film footage and have a 14-foot fur-lined gorilla arm pluck a fair damsel from a Manhattan skyscraper and pull her through a window.
The “big” this time is the huge revolving platform that occupies much of the playing area. This is a play with many rooms, and being able to rotate the stage allows for scene changes without the momentum-killing drudgery of invisible black-clad crew members (who aren’t fooling anybody) pulling all kinds of stuff on and off stage.
Newell says the revolving platform isn’t a turntable; it’s called a periaktos, a three-sided spinning deal used by the Greeks. And now we can dispense with the technical jargon and get to what it really is–something Newell says “took a ton of time and a bunch of lumber. No way would I’ve been able to do it without the help of (STAGES Theatre’s long-time set building impresario) Jon Gaw.”
Newell is a huge film buff and is a fan of the 1985 film (which has a backstory far more interesting than the game itself, see this 2015 Buzzfeed piece for that 411). But his initial entry point was the board game. And while the film based on that game has turned into a cult classic, the board game has turned into an empire.
Since the mid-1980s, there have been some two dozen spin-off board, VCR or card games, a musical, at least two other stage adaptations, about 10 computer or arcade games, a British and American TV series, several European game shows, 18 children’s books, comic books and there is always talk of turning it into an animated series and another feature film.
That’s an awful lot of mileage for a board game that, for most of its first 40 years of life, while successful, never had the popularity of ones like Monopoly or Battleship. But whereas those were also turned into movies, they haven’t had nearly the shelf life in other media as Clue.
So what is it about Clue?
“I’m not really sure,” said Newell, who remembers Clue as one of those games who “everybody seemed to have…and the one thing it had that no other game did were these characters, who didn’t have any backstory. So maybe when all these other things started coming out based on the game, people maybe felt like they knew the characters already.”
Or maybe it was the candlestick in the conservatory…
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Street, Fullerton
Mar. 11- Apr. 30.
$30 ($10 students)