Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Play: Holmes Away From Holmes

Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem by R. Hamilton Wright, Inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Directed by Allison Narver

I went to a play on Sunday, and it was OK. It wasn't great, but it was OK, a nice comfy slice of product delivered by a theatrical vector. And I find that frustrating, given the strength of the rest of the season. It's a bit disappointing. And the whys and wherefores take me deeply down the rabbit hole.

So, naturally, spoilers follow.

Sherlock Holmes and The American Problem (SHatAP - no, I think I'll find another short-form to call it) is a local production. The playwright is an incredibly talented actor who I have tagged before. The cast have all showed up at the Rep and other local theaters before, with not a "previous worked all in New York and California and an episode of Law & Order and is happy to be making their Seattle debut" in the lot. So I'm expecting a lot from the local team.

In addition, this is a sequel, in that two years ago the same playwright co-wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles a few seasons back, with the same actors returning as Holmes, Watson, and Mrs. Hudson. But Watson is more of a supporting dullard this time out, and Mrs. Hudson lacking her sharp replies to Holmes boorishness and Holmes ...

Well, there are lot of different Holmses (Holmesi?) out in the popular media. Robert Downey Jr's action hero, Cumberbatch's though-palace Gallifreyan, the CBS's irritating detective in rehab. They share common traits and are all fair game in Holmisana.  The Holmes of the American Problem charts his own course. He is a much more emotional, a childlike and childish Holmes, often hoisted by his own petard, outwitted and outfoxed and frustrated.

The trouble is that American's Holmes is different than the Baskerville's Holmes. The Baskerville Holmes delighted in masked deception and could not accurate quote the classics to save his life. The American's Holmes suddenly likes anagrams, and has synesthesia - that is, he smells numbers and hears colors. That last one is a pretty interesting trait to build a play around, but instead, it comes across as Holmes entering a drug-fugue state, as the SFX swells and the color changes onstage to bring us in Holmes mind. OK, I can roll with it - not really the same Holmes, but it is one of several re-adjustments I make as I go through the play.

Our same-but-different Holmes is cast into a whirlpool of clues and happenstance. Plates from the Royal Mint have been stolen. A mystery woman wants Holmes to find her brother. A mechanical digging device is stolen from the docks. Several criminal leaders have been killed. Holmes' brother Mycroft shows up to demand Holmes attend a reception. Earthquakes in the East End. And all this during the Queen's jubilee, which for Homes means that London is awash with foriegners - sorry, with Americans like Buffalo Bill and Mark Twain.

That's a lot of balls to keep in the air, such that the final scene has to sum up and tell the audience what is truly happening. But I'm never sure when Holmes figures out things and why - more often he tumbles into his revelations, searching for one thing and finding another. For a man who hates coincidences, he is confronted them at every turn.

And, all the deductions made or sudden twists don't leave a lot of room for character development. Baskerville had a thematic spine to it, revolving around the Holmes/Watson relationship, and resolves with Holmes trying to be less of an A-hole about things. Here Watson is relegated more to supporting character, faithful aid and person Holmes gets to show off his brilliance to. Pity, that.

And, since it involves Americans, there are a LOT of gunshots in the play, sufficient to carve the queen's initials in the back wall. We've had explosives in Holmes presentations before, but this was a excess.

The actors are fine - Darragh Kennan as Holmes is a more passionate, random sort of Great Detective. Andrew McGinn is a dutiful Watson, and Marianne Owen is a frustrated Mrs. Hudson. Christine Marie Brown is good as the mystery woman, Phoebe Anne Moses, who tries to hire Holmes, and Alex Matthews as a Pinkerton (because, you know, American). Cheyenne Casebier takes on a dual roles as a female engineer (because why not) and a criminal gang leader. Chalres Leggett is an dour undertaker of a Mycroft, one of those flock of Mycrofts released from the Diogenes Club to pester Holmes. And Rob Burgess is a dotty brit pigeon fancier who is more than he seems.

But they all seems like they're struggling with the script, trying to deteremine the levels of mystery, tragedy, and humor in the play. As a result it all feels very thin, almost episodic - indeed, the final reveal almost promises another installment. One of my fellow attendees made the comment "As soon as I decided it was fan-fic, I was good with it."

Indeed. This has the trappings and tropes of Holmes, compacted is a nice, attractive package that will full the seats at the end of a championship season. Yet when all said and done it is aperitif, a pleasant little custard, workmanlike (god, how writers hate that term) but in need of a bit more time in the oven.

More later, but probably not about plays until we kick in the next season, which features a pop opera by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos and set in a disco. May the Lord have mercy on us all.