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‘Punk-rock renaissance man’ Greg Kramer dies on eve of rehearsals for new play

Montreal theatre veteran Greg Kramer was about to mount a retelling of Sherlock Holmes.

Courtesy of Reisler Talent Inc.

Greg Kramer, Montreal-based playwright, actor, director, songwriter and magician, has died on the eve what was set to be his most prominent play to date, a new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring Goon's Jay Baruchel as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective.

The 51-year-old artist's body was discovered at his apartment on Monday after he failed to show up to the first day of rehearsals at the Segal Centre.

"He was a punk-rock renaissance man," says Andrew Shaver, a friend and colleague of Kramer's who is directing Sherlock Holmes. "He had such an irreverent spirit to whatever he did."

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While the exact causes and timing of Kramer's death are still unclear, Montreal police have ruled out foul play – and his passing is not a complete mystery to those who know him. While the British-born theatre creator had several creative projects on the go as usual – and was to co-star in Sherlock Holmes as Inspector Lestrade – it was not secret that he had been living on borrowed time.

"He'd been sick for a very long time: Two bouts with cancer, had a lung removed, he was HIV positive," says Paul Flicker, artistic producer of the Segal Centre, where Kramer had directed such shows as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Inherit the Wind in recent years. "But I saw him at our [season] launch just two weeks ago... The day [it is suspected] he passed away, he e-mailed us a revised draft of the script."

Rehearsals for Sherlock Holmes were shut down on the day Kramer's death was discovered, but the show will go on – the biggest stumbling block being the recasting of Lestrade. Indeed, Shaver and Baruchel were back in the rehearsal room on Tuesday afternoon rehearsing fight choreography with some of the other cast members. The production has taken on extra weight, says Shaver, "knowing that these are Greg's last words as a playwright."

Adds Flicker: "I don't want to sound trite, but I think at this point the best thing we can do for him is to do the best we can with his show."

Kramer was a man who wore many hats in Canada's theatre community since immigrating to the country in 1981, a decision taken in the wake of arts cuts made by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He lived in Vancouver for seven years first, then spent a decade in Toronto before settling in Montreal in 1999. His many roles included playing vampires on TV in Forever Knight and on stage in a recent musical production called Haunted Hillbilly directed by Shaver; he was wonderfully peculiar in his award-nominated performance as a blood-sucking gay couturier, belting out songs as loud as any other of the cast members with two lungs.

A writer of novels and plays, Kramer also had an added and in-demand skill set as a magician. He consulted on the legerdemain in Des McAnuff's recent production of The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer at the Stratford Festival – and had a skin graft on his forearm from a fire-throwing trick that went awry.

While he'd worked with companies from the Arts Club to Tarragon Theatre to the National Arts Centre and everywhere in between, Montreal's English theatre scene, where he regularly worked with every major company, will mourn him the most.

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"This is his final disappearing act," says Shaver. "But he got the cue wrong, as far as we're concerned."

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