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Duluth Playhouse bringing cult classic movie 'Clue' to NorShor stage

Postponed due to COVID, the company's final mainstage production of the 2021-22 season is an adaptation of the 1985 film farce based on the board game.

Actor lies on the floor.
Accusations as to who is the killer fly among cast members of the Duluth Playhouse’s production of the madcap whodunit “Clue” during rehearsal Aug. 1. The play opens Friday at the NorShor Theatre.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — For fans of the movie "Clue," you don't even have to say what the line is. It's just The Line.

"I don't know if there's a way to do The Line without it being a very big homage" to Madeline Kahn, said Jennie Ross. The late Kahn was the actor who originated the role Ross is stepping into for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Clue": Mrs. White, the widow who's still jealous of her dead husband's paramour.

Kahn's delivery of The Line, in the 1985 movie based on the board game, epitomizes the madcap eccentricity that's made the film a cult classic. Mrs. White struggles for words to adequately express her hatred, Kahn describing, "flames ... flames ... on the side of my face."

Actor pulls a rope from her purse.
Mrs. White (Jennie Ross) pulls a rope from her purse during the Aug. 1 rehearsal of the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Clue.” Also pictured are Colonel Mustard (Michael Kraklio) and Mrs. Peacock (Cathy Berggren).
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Ross delivers a faithful rendition, but director Dennis F. Johnson said, "I don't want to see Jennie playing Madeline Kahn playing Mrs. White. I want to see Jennie's take on Mrs. White. So we found ways to bring original portrayals through while still honoring those performances that people know and love so much."

Johnson, Ross and Sarah Wolter — who plays Miss Scarlet — were sitting in the NorShor Theatre's rehearsal room last week, getting ready for a long night practicing the play's complex choreography and rapid-fire dialogue.

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Except for a single Underground production at the Depot, the new season sees Playhouse programming entirely presented at the NorShor and nearby Zeitgeist.

"I had no idea that we were doing 'Noises Off' with killing," said Johnson. The actors laughed knowingly as the director referenced the famously hectic 1982 stage farce. "So many doors, and on and off and up and down!"

Cleveland Play House premiered playwright Sandy Rustin's stage adaptation of "Clue" in February 2020, just before COVID-19 became a pandemic and shuttered theaters worldwide. A virus surge later forced the Duluth Playhouse to postpone its own production of "Clue," originally scheduled to open in January 2022. The rescheduled production opens Friday and runs through Aug. 21.

"We've been trying really hard to keep everyone healthy, being really aware that there is something out there that is affecting so many people," said Ross, noting COVID's ongoing prevalence. "Being back onstage with live audiences ... I've been doing theater forever, so there's nothing like that feeling. It's so welcoming. Audiences are there because they want to see (live theater) again. They missed it just as much."

Actor points at another.
Miss Scarlet (Sarah Wolter) accuses another guest at a remote mansion of murder during a rehearsal of the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Clue.”
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

While some audience members will have the movie memorized from start to finish, others will be unfamiliar. Wolter said the script was written to work for everyone. "It's a very faithful adaptation from the film, with a few contemporary references thrown in," she said. "All the beats are there: the thrill of how tight that movie is, that farcical element where everything just snowballs."

Two actors interact.
Professor Plum (Jesse Davis) and Mrs. Peacock (Cathy Berggren) during a scene in the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Clue.”
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Given that the board game's premise is solving a murder mystery, it's no spoiler to say the show has a body count. "If it weren't for the fact that this is based on a board game," Wolter observed, "this would be a very traumatic event! You know, you go to a mansion and you think you're at a dinner party, and then people just start dying."

Thinking of the story as an elaborate game helps the actors keep the tone light, they said, and even to generate some sympathy for their potentially deadly characters. "Mrs. White is someone who has had five husbands," Ross said, "but she's a socialite. She's not shunned by anybody around her. ... She can still get more husbands."

Ross sees similarities between her character and Miss Scarlet, a sultry and savvy madam. "They're women who are in a situation where they don't have any power of their own," said Ross, "and they've taken the power in the only ways that they can, which are wiles and manipulation."

Scarlet, said Wolter, "is faced with all these politicians, and she very clearly sees how corrupt they all are, but they're all doing it in an underhanded way. Her point of view is, 'Look, I'm just doing what you all are doing. It's just that you seem to think you have some sort of moral high ground.'"

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Director listens to actors practicing their lines.
Director Dennis F. Johnson sits on a table as “Clue” cast members practice their lines.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

It's Johnson's job, as director, to keep all the pieces on the game board. "We're almost always all together" in the rehearsal process, he said. "It truly is an ensemble piece."

"This takes place in this crazy mansion that has secret passages and like 12 different rooms," said Wolter. "How do you bring that to the stage in a believable, fun way? I think Dennis has been really creative."
"Everyone's running in and out of doors," said Ross. "My favorite part of farces is just doors opening and closing and everyone popping around. ... I love that kind of humor."

"Speed is so, so, so, so important," said Wolter. "When we're really in a groove as an ensemble is when we're just clicking along and the audience doesn't have a moment to breathe."

After the interview, Johnson convened the cast to run through a series of scenes including a search of the mansion and the final reveal regarding who committed murder — and where, and with what. Those are the key questions posed by the board game, with players competing to guess what answers are secreted in an envelope.

Actor covers a second actor.
Wadsworth (Andy Frye) covers Miss Scarlet (Sarah Wolter), one of several murder suspects in “Clue.”
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

In the game, there's only one set of answers. In the film, there were a few: three different endings were filmed, producing three versions of the movie. In 1985, you'd have to go to a different cinema to see the story turn out differently. Home video releases have included all three endings, presented in sequence.
How does the play end? Where do all the bodies pile up? Has anyone called the police?

Sorry, said Wolter: no spoilers. "You'll just have to come and see."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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