THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING SHERLOCK

26 Jul

holmes alley

Sherlock Holmes and The Crucifer of Blood

Alley Theatre

By JOHN DeMERS

After 150 years in residence at what’s got to be the world’s most famous address – 221B Baker St. in London – the great detective Sherlock Holmes has found the perfect new home. It’s the annual Summer Chills series produced (indoors, thankfully) as hot-weather entertainment by the Alley Theatre.

The local series has been a delight for years, showing a certain proclivity for the cerebral who-done-its of Agatha Christie, while taking time off for bits of horror and the macabre, always with as light a touch as possible. In short, Summer Chills typically is to theater what summer reading is to reading.

And if there’s one name that seems to fill that bill on all counts, it’s Sherlock Holmes. After all, the Holmes yarns penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over 40 years beginning in 1887 wrestle with some of the darkest and most diabolical corners of the criminal imagination – with a nod or two to Dr. Freud over in Vienna. However, especially as interpreted and enjoyed today, the stories give off a sense of high spirits, of good humor and – dare we say – even a side order of camp. They are, in short, marvelous entertainment.

The Alley is blessed with that incredible gift: an actor who actually looks the part. Conan Doyle was generous in his descriptions of Holmes, especially since he returned to his most famous creation so often. It just wouldn’t do to have Holmes played, say, by Peter Ustinov, who made a fine Hercule Poirot in several big-budget films. No, Holmes must be tall and desperately thin (yes, by this time we all know about the opium-cocaine thing), with a hawk-like angularity to his face. And there’s hardly anybody on earth who can’t conjure up the guy, whether we see him as Basil Rathbone in black and white or Jeremy Brett in gloomy, grainy BBC color.

In the current production of Paul Giovanni’s original Holmes drama The Crucifer of Blood (the Alley adds the detective’s name to the title), Todd Wait is extraordinary. He carries the gravitas of Holmes’ intelligence with a slice of lightness and self-deprecation that breaks only when he’s telling his friend and intrepid chronicler, Dr. John Watson, how dreary life is for him when he’s not enmeshed in a challenging case. Boredom, yes – there is that. But also a kind of emptiness of the soul that Holmes wakes up each day to fill with questions and answers. And of course with his knowledge of arcane data from every culture and every corner of the earth. We believe in Sherlock Holmes as inhabited by Waite. And we laugh and applaud as he succeeds, even if we all have an inkling of the dark places that send him forth seeking the light.

Though much is made in the program notes of a single Holmes story called The Sign of Four, Giovanni essentially crafted a new drama from old, deliciously familiar pieces. The play, which opened on Broadway in 1978 and enjoyed considerable success (starring Paxton Whitehead, whom I was lucky enough to catch in the role), sets Holmes and Watson on a trail of murder and betrayal that began three decades earlier in the Red Fort in Agra. An uprising is in progress against the British colonial powers in India. Quickly: there is a treasure, there are several violent deaths, there is talk of a curse, there is a blood oath – and now, 30 years later, something is hunting down and killing the now-old men involved. Pretty delicious stuff, don’t you think?

The Alley cast does its usual great job enjoying the quirky characters, especially John Tyson as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade, the comic, always-wrong counterpoint to Holmesian  genius, and Justin Doran as Birdy Johnson, who channels Lurch from the old Addams Family TV series by way of, I don’t know, maybe Fellini mixed with Disney World’s Haunted Mansion. Chris Hutchison makes a marvelous young Watson (the story takes place early in their careers), and even gets an unlikely bit of romance with Elizabeth Bunch as the ever-frightened Irene St. Clair.  Jeffrey Bean and James Black shine as two of the three conspirators all those years ago in British India, while Philip Lehl seems to be having considerable fun lurking about in various dark shadows as the third. And… whoever plays that old Chinese guy in the opium den is a hoot!

The current Alley production deletes, dilutes or at least simplifies some of the more memorable special effects from the 1978 Broadway show, especially the bizarre cross-shaped figure on the picture window still mentioned in Giovanni’s script; but it certainly captures the essence.  And thankfully, we still get the fog-besotted Thames at night. There’s some excellent work onstage this summer by scenic designer Kevin Rigdon, lighting designer Rui Rita and especially costume designer Blair Gulledge. The characters all definitely “look” their parts.

Perhaps by the end of this year’s Summer Chills, the Alley Theatre on Texas Avenue will also be known as the address Sherlock Holmes lives.

Photo: Todd Waite as Holmes

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One Response to “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING SHERLOCK”

  1. jerry pollio August 17, 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    Hi John:

    I am collaborating with Midge on their Lecture series with the Houston Piano Company. Midge speaks very highly of you so I took the opportunity to read your blog posts….I enjoy them…please keep writing them..

    All the best..hope to meet you at the 9/23 event.

    Jerry

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