How often do people meet Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes these days? We seem to be mostly meeting him through other writers’ riffs on him. Two recent and successful reimaginings of Sherlock in a modern world–especially the BBC’s brilliant duo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman–still live in our TVs. My own introduction to Sherlock was The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a novel by Nicholas Meyer, suffused in 1970s pop culture tropes: Sherlock strung out on coke addiction, receiving intense psychotherapy (from Sigmund Freud himself), and chasing shadowy figures around Europe on trains. There are so many more that I went into Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear at the Purple Rose sighing a little bit, wishing writers would let him be.
But I brightened when I saw the set–a conservatory, fully bedecked as a glorious piece of Victorian eye candy with marble floors, tropical plants, a chaise longue, trays of tea, bric-a-brac. Curtain up, Watson marches in harrumphing a bit, followed by Sherlock swanning around in his skivvies and a brocade dressing gown, playing his Strad, and what can you do but sit back and see what playwright David MacGregor has decided to do with him?
What he’s done is turn the usual Holmes-Watson duo into a menage a trois with Irene Adler. As Sherlock’s live-in lover, she lolls around in louche Victorian deshabille, while her intellect works as ruthlessly and effectively as a buzz saw. In this trio, Sherlock is more of an underachiever: a smart but randy libertine, trailing a step or two behind Irene most of the time and working only when she rouses him from his torpor. Even superimposed on the palimpsest of all my previous Sherlocks, it works. There’s a genuine lightness in the writing that I haven’t seen in MacGregor’s earlier Purple Rose premieres, Consider the Oyster, Gravity, and Vino Veritas.
Plot? Well, I think Sherlock could have figured it out, but I couldn’t. I’d get hold of one end of the slippery thing–a sequence of antics involving Moriarty’s progeny, shifting identities, and a motive involving art speculation which requires prescience about late twentieth-century technology–and lose sight of the other. As noted, the stage dressing is superb.
As for the various actors and what they bring to their characters, here’s my own scorecard: Watson (Paul Stroili), spot on, chap. Like you were born to it, old bean. Tom Whalen, as a rabbity, and broken Vincent van Gogh, is also a genius at work. Oscar Wilde (Rusty Mewha) I am dismissing as a writer’s error–no actor could have conjured up the real Wilde living in my head from such impeccably arch and well-mannered lines. I found Sherlock (Mark Colson) and Irene (Sarab Kamoo) to be lacking a physical chemistry, which is necessary for believing these two are living in Victorian sin.
But my favorite of all is newcomer Caitlin Cavannaugh, who doesn’t even have an Equity star in the program yet. As a mysterious French client she carries the entire difficult plot on her shoulders; she’s required to speak her lines in a dense Inspector Clouseau-like accent; and as if that weren’t enough, at the center of this play she and Irene Adler strip down to petticoats for an extended swordfight. The role is hard, and Cavannaugh shows occasional signs of strain, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear runs every Wednesday to Sunday through May 26.