Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure
Commonweal Theatre Company, Lanesboro, MN
Reviewed by James Briggs
Just as these meanderings are being posted, scores of distinguished American “Sherlockians” and British “Holmesians” (pronounced Holm-EEZ-ians!), plus not a few of us mere dilettantes, will be converging on Minneapolis, to participate in Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Place, the current manifestation of the triennial Sherlock Holmes conference held at the University of Minnesota. The conference is sponsored by The Norwegian Explorers, one of the oldest, largest and most active among the scion societies of the Baker Street Irregulars, that august international group of scholars and devotees founded in 1934 by the writer and editor Christopher Morley, and peopled, in aggregate, by several generations of acclaimed eccentrics from around the world. Not coincidentally, the University of Minnesota is home to a vast Arthur Conan Doyle archive, one of the largest anywhere, a must-not-miss for any serious student of Sherlockiana.
But this year there is a bonus reason for Holmes enthusiasts to come to Minneapolis. The smart ones (and some are very smart) will arrange to extend their visit and make a pleasant side trip. Lanesboro, Minnesota is a relaxing two-hour drive almost directly south of the conference epicenter. It is nestled in the scenic Bluff Country, a favorite hub of bicyclists and river rafters, has excellent restaurants and B & Bs, and boasts a year-round population in excess of 700 souls. It is also home to the Commonweal Theatre Company, a permanent professional repertory company now celebrating its 25th season. It is justly famous for its annual Ibsen Festival, the only one of its kind in North America, but also plays contemporary and classical works throughout the year.
For this special season, Steven Dietz’s Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure highlights the summer program, and plays through October. As most Sherlockians already know, it is a present-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, a play written a century ago, in loose collaboration with Doyle, by the iconic Holmes portrayer William Gillette, and performed by him for many years.
Gillette’s work drew heavily from A Scandal in Bohemia, the first of the 56 short adventures, and from The Final Problem, which was the last . . . that is, until it wasn’t any more . . . but that’s another story.
The Dietz play has been performed at many venues around the country since its Tucson premiere in 2006, and alas, not always with the greatest success. But the Commonweal has nailed it, and delivers a production which offers top flight light entertainment for summer theatergoers (as it must), plus a generous measure of worthy grist for Holmes aficionados.
Director Michael Bigelow Dixon, whose work is well known in Minnesota, has taken the material confidently in hand, and has fashioned a standout production. There is a timely theme overarching the action (both figuratively and literally); some bold and surprising casting choices (which work); a brisk pace just on the good side of feverish; and a deft handling of the inevitable romance, appallingly overblown by Gillette, mercifully tempered by Dietz, and tamped down to an acceptable palatability by Dixon.
“The Game is Afoot,” reads the banderole which looms over the set. The phrase is well chosen, well known, and generally associated with Sherlock Holmes. In fact, it is found in the opening passages of The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, a popular short story. Contextually, Holmes utters the famous words as he stands, fully dressed, over a sleeping Watson, summoning his faithful chronicler to join him in a pre-dawn excursion to investigate a grisly overnight murder. The scene has nothing to do, really, with the story, nor the story with the play. But in a larger sense, the caption is perfect. Holmes invokes the word many times in reference to his pursuits, for in his world, the “game” is everything. Dixon goes even further—in his program notes, he points out that games and puzzles were immensely popular in Victorian England. Crossword puzzles emerged; jigsaw puzzles evolved from children’s playthings to drawing room pastimes for serious adults. Trompe-l’Oile art, popular since ancient times, enjoyed a resurgence. Hand shadow silhouettes, optical illusions, and board games proliferated. And set designer Kit Mayer captures all this in a brilliant, minimalist tour-de-force. Under the “Game” banner is a huge cube, scored to suggest a chessboard, perhaps, and sometimes enhanced by projected jigsaw puzzle squiggles. Embedded within it are hidden doors, niches and cabinets, presenting themselves for appropriate exits, entrances, appearances or concealments.
At one climactic moment, the “gas chamber at Stepney,” its valves and widgets deliciously foretelling today’s “steampunk” dernier cri, springs forth in the same space. The scene is derived from the Gillette play, not from Doyle, but is based on the Stepney Coal-gas Works, a real-life facility which generated much of the flickering gaslight we fondly associate with turn-of-the-century London. Other furnishings are also minimal, angular and unobtrusive. Thus, the “Game” theme is never out of view, yet never in the way.
Only once did the action move to a different level. In the fatal Reichenbach Falls scene, Holmes and Moriarty are perched upon a small, elevated loge-like enclosure at the rear of the house, with sounds and images of rushing water projected and piped in. Audiences feel a chilly dread, as they should, and the device, in its effective simplicity, recalls the absurdity of the indoor Alpine resort fiasco in the recent film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Set construction itself is attributed to New Amsterdam Scenic, about which no additional information was forthcoming. But it worthily shares at least its nominal affinity with the venerable Broadway theater of the same name.
The casting of the lead roles should be addressed next. In last year’s holiday production, Jeremy Van Meter played a virile, commanding Ebenezer Scrooge, in startling, breathtaking contrast to the feeble, malice-encrusted croaker so often seen. He is tall and elegant onstage, with forceful stride and authoritative voice. In short, he is a prima facie Sherlock Holmes. Hal Cropp, executive director at the Commonweal, is an actor of long experience, whose performances often suggest a contemplative, analytical nature, complemented by a deep reservoir of comic nuance. And with his reputation for exhaustive preparation, he could probably synthesize the many Watsons of film and fiction, and eclipse them all.
But of course, that is not how it went. Cropp is Holmes, and the lank-limbed Van Meter his loyal companion. It is tempting to object. But when one sees the play, what might first appear as a misbegotten trespass of cross-casting reveals itself as a counterintuitive gem. Dixon, a theater professor at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, is known as an innovator, and one suspects that he was looking well beyond first impressions here.
Watson, to be sure, was never the simpering fool that Nigel Bruce made him in the memorable Basil Rathbone films. He was a highly educated professional, a trained army surgeon, with heroic service in the Afghan wars. The bravery he showed in the fatal battle of Maiwand renewed itself many times in his exploits at Holmes’s side. Van Meter’s Watson, truer than most to the Doylean archetype, never lets us forget why the famous detective places such a high premium on his assistance.
Hal Cropp’s Sherlock Holmes is also a highly evolved specimen. Cropp prepared for the role by reading the entire Doyle canon (very purposeful in his case, but a task which will richly repay anyone who undertakes it). In doing so, he must have been very focused—not just on the most dramatic words, actions and mannerisms of his character, but also on the subtler clues intimated by Watson’s incidental remarks and by those many exquisite moments which the two share at times of relative relaxation in their Baker Street rooms.
Holmes, for example, is always meticulously groomed. He is courteous to a fault, and never abusive or combative (though this is too often overlooked by his mega-media portrayers of the present day), reserving his occasional arrogance and sarcasm almost exclusively for the longsuffering Watson. He is, to use Doyle’s own word, debonair—not in the jaunty or swashbuckling sense, but courteous and chivalrous—nearly always with clients, and unfailingly with women. True, he often holds himself aloof from the shamblings of less active intellects, but never withholds his aid when it is truly needed. He loves to tease and taunt when the mood is on him, but evinces the strongest moral rectitude in matters of substance. Cropp summons all of this to the surface, and more. His presence onstage is even-headed and steadying, just as Holmes himself so often proves to be when others falter. At the end, the “role reversal” may be the key to the production’s success.
The Irene Adler role is taken, not surprisingly, by Stef Dickens, a Commonweal mainstay with a long and varied resume which belies her youthful appearance and demeanor. She has, in a sense, “grown up” with the company, and most satisfactorily, too. With many comic roles to her credit, she has also been a voluptuous Anitra in the Ibsen Festival’s Peer Gynt, and, more recently, an austere yet passionate Nora in A Doll’s House. And another small point: some years ago, in a locally sourced World War II nostalgia piece, she became the chanteuse, and was called upon to style several popular tunes from that era. Her performance was creditable, if not memorable. But here, in sort of preludial aside, she introduces her character with a shimmering and confident rendering of an operatic aria. Only a few bars’ worth would fit (Dietz’s stage direction calls only for an “image” of Irene Adler), but the audience is left craving much more.
Though we are treated to only the one small snatch of her singing, Dickens does sustain the Irene Adler persona brilliantly throughout. While it is hard to imagine the resourceful diva being duped by a feckless bumbler like the villain Larrabee, we must remember that her presence here is Dietz’s innovation, and the puzzle pieces must be made to fit. When she finally has the bounder at her mercy, Dickens’s Adler takes full control. She can show playfulness and grit in a single phrase, and she brings the same versatility and determination when parrying Holmes’s inept courtship. In this matter, Dietz may be credited with an upgrade: in the Gillette version of a century earlier, the romance is culminated by an uncharacteristic declaration of love, a sudden embrace, and an abruptly darkened stage. Audiences of that era felt a perpetual thirst for melodrama (allegedly), and perhaps Gillette was trying to appease it. But in this play, the roots of the attraction are deep and tendrilous, and Dickens lets us feel it. Without the catastrophic supervention of the Reichenbach tragedy, we are sure, the couple will coalesce and thrive. Stef Dickens’s Irene Adler may be a nineteenth century character, but she is decidedly a twenty-first century woman.
Now in his fourth season at the Commonweal, young Daniel L. Stock has already developed a fine sense of comedic naïveté in his work, and he brings this to his interpretation of the King of Bohemia. The original King, it will be remembered, wore a coat of Astrakhan, a fine, tightly curled wool which takes its name from the Russian city of its origin. Whether by accident or by design, costumer Annie Cady seems to have virtually duplicated this in the false beard worn in the King’s first appearance. Stock uses this lucky circumstance, with his own talent for mock pomposity, to carry the scene. Doyle’s own King, by contrast, is arrogant and stuffy, with about as much natural humor as the present-day Charles, Prince of Wales. He disappears entirely in the Gillette play, which draws only peripherally from A Scandal in Bohemia; but is given new life (and many new lines, including “Aaaaaaaauuuughghghgh!”) by Dietz. The King’s endowments, regrettably, appear limited to fortune, privilege, and a fine, tall physique. Stock shares this latter, to be sure, but brings greater personal gifts to the table, and Commonweal audiences hope to see much more of him in future productions.
At the other end of the seniority spectrum, Commonweal veteran David Hennessey lopes menacingly about the stage as Professor James Moriarty, the usually invisible mortal enemy of Sherlock Holmes. Moriarty oversees a vast underground enterprise, and Holmes does not regard him with the dismissive contempt he expresses for so many of his criminal adversaries. On the contrary, the two men appear to sense the inevitability of their mutual destruction, and Cropp and Hennessey have expertly honed this dynamic in their measured discourse. Moriarty is given a medium-strong Irish brogue, frizzed flyaway hair, and a grimy lab coat, which he wears in every scene. The former, according to Dixon, is because Moriarty is an Irish name. And how right he is—it originated in County Kerry, from the far less pronounceable O’Muircheartaigh! But despite Hennessey’s faithful and skilful rendition, it detracts from the professor’s gravitas, and the character may have presented better without it. The hair and coat are harder to explain, since Doyle’s Moriarty (and presumably Gillette’s) was dapper and sophisticated, hardly the mad scientist of B movies.
Supporting players may have found themselves tasked a bit more severely than usual, but all rise to the challenge. Multiple roles are de rigueur, of course, but here, Godfrey Norton, the bland solicitor who is Irene Adler’s intended, must double as the cutthroat Larrabee. Larrabee’s evil twin needs to cross the gender barrier. There are the usual quick changes of costume and comportment as well. But Gary Danciu, Carla Joseph and Mike Swan manage everything admirably, and the rhythm is never broken.
The final effect of The Final Adventure is a satisfying meld of mystery, humor and enigma. The play itself may be only a single component of a popular culture awash in its Sherlock renaissance. But this production will be remembered longer, stronger and better than most. Michael Bigelow Dixon and his gifted cast, from their shining enclave in rural Minnesota, just may have mastered the Game.