at the Curious Theatre Branch
AN EVENING AT HOLMES
at Red Bones Theatre
Good detective fiction is more than just puzzle solving--it's social criticism. The way things are in a particular culture is exposed when things go wrong. The Free Associates understand this, and that's why their improv comedy show Pick-a-Dick is fun.
The players offer a choice of detectives for the night's playlet: Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, Mike Hammer, and V.I. Warshawski were available when I attended last Saturday (Miss Marple and the Hardy Boys are in the running on other occasions). But that night the clear applause-o-meter choice was Nancy Drew--appropriately, since a national conference on literature's most famous girl detective was then under way at the University of Iowa (Drew's creator, Mildred Wirst Benson, graduated from that school shortly before writing the first Nancy novel in 1930). We were also asked to vote on a "safe" location for the story--we chose the high school soda shop--and a wholesome item to serve as the plot's pivotal clue. An unused condom was the winner; what could be more wholesome?
Under the direction of Mark Gagne (who also played deli owner-turned-alderman Abraham Glotnick), the Free Associates improvised their way through "The Secret of the Unused Condom." The comic characterizations were mostly sharp--Darlene Hunt was a perky, engaging straight-arrow Nancy who listened earnestly as her embarrassed dad (Phil Lusardi) explained the rationale behind prophylactics. In keeping with the 1950s setting established by the actors at the beginning, Mr. Drew told his daughter that some boys carried condoms to "look cool," not to actually use them. That understanding guided Nancy to the villain of the piece--a greaser whose fiendish plot involved peddling bad perms and wrapped rubbers to unsuspecting high school students.
Quick and unpretentious, Pick-a-Dick exhibits a troupe of young comic actors who can roll with the punches to invent a well-structured play as they go along. Their main crutch seems to be a tableau style, starting and stopping each new scene with a freeze; scene changes are cued by stage manager Paul Chapman, based on his observations of where the actors are taking the story. The characterizations were consistent and so were most of the details (though a reference to Patty Duke was out of place--Patty was 60s, not 50s), and the audience took pleasure in the performers' wit and flexibility. But the best thing, from this viewer's perspective, was that the Free Associates know that mystery--even a comedy mystery like this--is nothing to be laughed at.
Sherlock Holmes is not among the dicks the Free Associates invite you to pick; but in any case no spoof could travesty the famous detective half so well as KKT Productions' earnest attempt at serious Sherlock. An Evening at Holmes pairs two one-acts by Michael and Mollie Hardwick adapted pretty faithfully from Arthur Conan Doyle stories; but even the most skillful sleuth would have some trouble discerning the essence of Holmes in this cheap, amateurish staging.
This is too bad, because director Thom Miller seems to understand the original material. He's paired "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," a very well known tale, with the relatively unfamiliar "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" for good reason. In both, Holmes and his trusty companion Dr. Watson tread a thin line between busting crime and committing it. In the first story the duo's pursuit of a villain finds them guilty of breaking and entering and perhaps even murder; in the second they become burglars and certainly accomplices to murder. Long before Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were exploring the dark side of detection, Doyle was on the case; and his stories also serve as interesting considerations of sexual inequality, as crimes are committed by men who use their inherently powerful social position to exploit the economic dependence forced upon women in Victorian society.
Miller knows this stuff, but he's failed utterly to bring it to life on the stage. The blocking is clumsy (the potentially exciting climax of "The Speckled Band" is completely ruined) and the acting is ham-handed, from Kyle Storjohann's matinee-idol handsome but smugly supercilious Holmes (whose gorgeous smoking gown must have taken up most of the production budget, judging by the set) to Dominick J. Basso Jr.'s posturing, pouty dork of a Watson to Karrie McKeon's tepid reading of the terrorized victim in "The Speckled Band." (McKeon should be careful of improvising her lines--it's doubtful a Victorian lady would have told Holmes it was "OK" to enter a room.) If you really want an evening at Holmes, pick up a book.