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The Game’s Afoot! Sherlock Holmes Weekends in Cape May

Sherlock Holmes056

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine, Fall 2009.

“Hurry, Watson, the game’s afoot!”

If, like me, you’re a Sherlock Holmes buff, you’ve heard the phrase spoken countless times.

When Patrick Mulvaney, who played the role of Sherlock Holmes in the Cape May production of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Mistaken Identity, shouted the famous line near the end of the play, it marked the game that John Alvarez decided for his first written script for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts’ (MAC) fabled Sherlock Holmes Weekend.

Alvarez, who played the role of Holmes’ faithful sidekick, turned toward the audience and responded, “Funny…I still don’t know what he is talking about.”

Alvarez’s assumptions about the response from the crowd proved to be correct. The audience, gathered at The Inn of Cape May for the final act of a three-act play, responded with both laughter and applause.

Watson&someone“What most people don’t realize is that is a line from Shakespeare [King Henry IV] and not from a Sherlock Holmes story,” said Alvarez, who has played numerous roles in the series since the mid-1990s and has written several other plays. Alvarez debated about whether or not to leave the line in the play. “I just didn’t want to be offensive to some of the scholarly Sherlock Holmes followers,” he said.

However, Alvarez’s doubts were quickly put to rest, and the questionable and recognized line proved to be a fitting ending to a play creatively mixed with both intrigue and humor. It is the unlikely blend of those two elements that have captivated and allured Alvarez and countless others on and off stage to contribute in their own ways to the Sherlock Holmes Weekends.

“There is a real connection here between so many people,” emphasized Alvarez. “In some ways, the weekend has taken on a life of its own. People who see me in other places always express a real interest in my life as well as the other actors. It has become a prominent event and a weekend escape for many people through the years.”

Whatever their motivation for coming, the game is truly “afoot” during the renowned Sherlock Holmes Weekends, held during Cape May’s “shoulder seasons” in March and again in November. It is a weekend where a keen eye, a pondering mind and a hearty laugh can be your calling card for an affordable weekend getaway that can easily let you escape back into a late-1800s weekend when a life of chivalry, dignity and formality played significant roles. It appeals to the true Holmes and Maid&Womanmystery aficionados who often strive to assume their Victorian roles with as much authenticity as possible. It also appeals to those simply seeking a weekend full of creative challenges. According to Mary Stewart, a veteran actor in the Sherlock Holmes series and Director of Outreach for the MAC, roughly one-third of the participants are repeat customers. Some have been attending for 10 to 15 years or longer.

Karen Allen of nearby North Wildwood has attended seven of the weekends, and would not consider coming without wearing suitable garments for the event. Among the honors bestowed on participants, “Overall Weekend Winner,” “Weekend Package Winner,” and “Clueless Wonder Winner,” Karen has frequently been singled out as one of the “Best Dressed.” She and her husband, Bruce, scour antique shops across the county in order to arrive in their best Holmesian attire.

“This costume is 120 years old, and it is an actual antique,” said Karen about her wardrobe at the March weekend. “I have also made some of the costumes for the event.  We began this as a Christmas present for my husband, and we have been enjoying it ever since. From the opening evening, you can become very comfortable with everyone because it is a relaxed environment where you are focused on the task of solving a problem, relaxing and having fun and meeting new friends.”

Warren Brodt and his wife, Cathy, along with their friends, Al and Elizabeth Cooper from Devon, Pennsylvania, formed “The Columbia Street Irregulars,” a group of 10 to 20 returnees who for the past 14 years have arrived in full regalia.

Watson“I was attracted to the weekend because I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan,” said Warren, who has read and watched numerous Sherlock Holmes novels and videos. “We have had a number of people in our group solve the crime. When my wife won, her jaw just dropped. It’s been fun to watch the changes in the different venues and the different actors. But the real attraction seems to be the friendships and overall friendly atmosphere of the weekend. It’s like a family reunion.”

For the typical crowd of 100 to 200 participants, the combination of intrigue, laughter and camaraderie blend together with Cape May’s splendid Victorian background to provide visitors with a weekend opportunity to finally assume the role of one of their most beloved characters. Most have spent countless hours reading and rereading their favorite Sherlock Holmes tale.

Since 1990 the weekends have attracted aspiring detectives ranging in all ages from the grizzled mystery bookworm, to the television detective fanatic, and even the studious, but curious, college student fascinated with the chance to use their problem-solving skills while experiencing the charm of Cape May.

In the course of a little over 40 hours, participants experience an opening act on Friday evening when the city’s quaintness and gas-light appearance bestow an appropriate backdrop to a classical mystery setting. If you are lucky, a fog will roll in to add a finishing touch as you are introduced to the main characters at an inn or restaurant.  To put the crowd at ease, the actors weave their way among the tables, typically in a close setting as you listen and dine on an assortment of desserts.

Sherlock Holmes006If you are a first-time visitor, it can initially feel a little awkward sitting down with a group of strangers during the first act. However, the enthusiastic and charismatic veterans tend to work the room masterfully as they often ask the crowd to respond to a question as they roam around the tables and chairs. There are also the returnees who offer their rendition of a Holmes, Watson or any other typical Londoner in their attire from the 1800s

At the conclusion of the opening evening, you will leave with an item in your hand, one of the major clues in solving the mystery. In the past, participants have left with a variety of creative items ranging from a replica copy of the Cape May Star and Wave newspaper to a cryptogram. You will also leave with a list of bed and breakfast establishments in a five to six-block radius of the city to begin the search for clues.

As day two begins, it’s time to don your Holmes hat and pipe. The hunt is on as you and your fellow detectives search for clues. A word of caution – be shrewd with your time and confer methodically and judiciously with your most trusted colleagues as time is of the essence in your two-hour window before you return to view the second act of the play, normally in a rendition of Holmes’ study at the opening night site. Upon leaving, you be provided with a form to help solve the mystery and pinpoint who you believe perpetrated the crime.

Sherlock Holmes033The East Lynne Theater Company also performs a reenactment of a radio broadcast Saturday evening of such Sherlock Holmes classics as The Adventure of the Speckled Band and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.

Finally, it’s time for the final act to be presented and the culprit to be revealed during a midday brunch. Soon afterwards, the “Overall Winner” and the “Clueless Wonder” are announced concluding the festivities. Both “winners” receive a package for the following year. This past March, Bonnie Kellet of Manassas, Virginia, was a first-time contestant and a first-time winner. She and her husband, Tom, decided to join their daughter, Jennifer and her husband, Jerry, on a weekend getaway.

“The real fun was searching for clues and seeing all of the different places and antiques,” said Bonnie. “It’s such a great interactive weekend, and it’s definitely worth the trip for anyone.”

So, next time you are strolling the streets of Cape May on either a March or November weekend and believe you may see someone dressed a bit oddly, don’t be alarmed because… “The Game’s Afoot!”

Mystery and mayhem take over Cape May during Sherlock Homes Weekend, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC), Friday to Sunday, Nov. 6-8.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, and his partner Dr. Watson return to Cape May for another weekend of murder and suspense.  The master detective is faced with one of his most baffling cases yet, The Case of Mistaken Identity by John K. Alvarez, a new mystery for 2009. Please call 609-884-5404 or 800-275-4278, ext. 185 for more information or to reserve your overnight package.