Good Sh*t, Sherlock
Western Stage’s version of the detective legend is high grade.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
What 21st century citizen has not pondered the fate of the most famous Victorian detective, the greatest detective of all? You haven’t? Funny, nor have I. But no matter if you give not a whit, nary a fillip, nor even a jot about how literature’s favorite high-functioning addict met his match, in Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, Western Stage chisels the crust off a century of stage, screen and black-and-white television interpretations to deliver colorfully modern characters in a smart, engaging, irresistible bagatelle of a play by Steven Dietz.
In the first moments the form takes shape: the tale is to be narrated, as are most of those Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has written, by Holmes’ trusted sidekick and biographer, the stolid Dr. Watson (Patrick McGreal). With the help of a darkened set, a shrill police whistle, the cries of a newsboy and a little business in the wings, we are firmly planted in the pre-dawn bustle of a London street, where a passer-by reads the startling headline: Sherlock Holmes is dead! Watson steps forward to begin his recollection of the remarkable story that begins with the delivery of a letter from his dear friend…
Few companies wring so much out of a black box theater as does Western Stage. The set is dressed as the Great Deducer’s parlor at one of literature’s most famous addresses: 221B Baker Street in London. Here in Sir Arthur’s 60 original Sherlock Holmes tales, Holmes and Watson lived together under the watchful eye of the housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, until Watson married. Now Holmes has sent Mrs. Hudson away and issued Watson a mysterious summons to come to Baker Street… by night, over the back wall and through a window.
Scenic and lighting designer Theodore Michael Dolas concocted a versatile Victorian interior with gaslight sconces, a pair of doors center stage and a few vestiges of furniture contrasting in warm mahogany with the pervading black walls and floor surrounds. In a clever flourish, the center of the floor is made of that same mahogany, in the outline of a giant violin… a reference to a Holmesian trait that is mentioned nowhere in Dietz’ play. Director William J. Wolak uses such references as a shortcut to the audience’s foreknowledge of the characters, and gets right to the meat of the story.
A precisely timed lighting effect wrenches focus from Dr. Watson’s narration into the action of the play, where everything swirls around the central character of Sherlock Holmes (Jeffrey T. Heyer, seeming born to play the part). In an instant Holmes is already deriving outlandish deductions from seemingly imperceptible clues, and we arrive quickly at the play’s ground level: two old friends, one brilliant and flamboyant, the other bright but self-effacing: “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
In a brief scene the production sparks all the synapses, recalling everything we know of Holmes: his brilliance and arrogance, his drug addiction, his longstanding intellectual duel with the “Napoleon of crime,” Professor Moriarty. With a century’s-worth of personality traits securely at hand, there is one element out of place: The woman-hating Sherlock Holmes would seem to be, well, lovesick. And, of course, in mortal danger.
We learn that Holmes means finally to confront his nemesis, Moriarty– introduced to the audience in a wordless balcony snapshot, pruning a rose for his boutonniere, while below, Holmes and Watson discuss him. Director Wolak uses the balcony to present such vignettes as well as to take the action to an exterior location.
Western Stage at its best uses strong professional and semi-professional talent in the lead roles to sweep along the less assured performances. So, in The Final Adventure, do the performances of Heyer, the perfectly modulated basso-voiced villainy of Jeff McGrath as Professor Moriarty and the sparkling authority of Deborah Curtis as the beautiful diva Irene Adler, the one woman Holmes has ever loved– carry the production.
Heyer is marvelous: precise diction, carefully flamboyant gestures, eyes upturned as if summoning his muse but with confidant physicality, all bespeak a man used to the solitary pinnacle of his success, faltering only before the unfamiliar passion of love. Patrick McGreal’s Watson mumbled a bit but mostly made it part of Watson’s unassuming personality. Christopher J. Carr as the King of Bohemia created an endearing stage presence with a hammed-up accent that landed somewhere between Yiddish and Glaswegian, skewing his every scene toward comic melodrama. But it hardly mattered, because the play moved at a perfect pace through love, deception, danger, impenetrable schemes… to the final confrontation.
Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure continues through Sept. 7 in the Studio Theater, Hartnell College, 411 Central Ave., Salinas; then Sunset Center, San Carlos at Ninth, Carmel, Sept. 12-14. Performances are at 8pm Fri and Sat; 2pm Sun. Tickets are $20/adults; $17/youth, seniors, military. Sept. 13 performance is a special gala. Call 375-2111 or 755-6816 or visit www.westernstage.com.