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Theatre Calgary presents
SHERLOCK HOLMES
By William Gillette & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Adapted By Stephen Massicotte & Ian Prinsloo
Max Bell Theatre at Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts from October 19 - November 7, 2004
Review text copyright Charles Prepolec  and J. R. Campbell 2004 may not be reproduced without permission. All images are copyright their respective owners and are used here for publicity and review purposes only. No rights or ownership implied. To arrange for removal of any offending images contact the webmaster.
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Viewing Theatre Calgary’s new production of William Gillette’s
play
Sherlock Holmes makes me feel a bit like I’ve put on an
outdated but comfortable old suit, only to find that someone has
altered the lapels, shortened the sleeves and tightened the
trousers while I was wasn’t looking. Sure it’s got bags more style,
looks great and it’s still quite comfortable, but let’s face facts,
it just isn’t that same old well-loved suit anymore. So then, the
question becomes, is that a good or bad thing? I find myself faced
with exactly that same dilemma in light of the heavily streamlined
and altered version of William Gillette’s
Sherlock Holmes as
adapted by director Ian Prinsloo and screenwriter Stephen
Massicotte (
Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning and The Dark).

OVERVIEW:

In attempting to make Gillette’s old-fashioned and rather languid melodrama more palatable to modern audiences, Prinsloo and Massicotte hit upon the notion that Sherlock Holmes could be viewed as the world’s first superhero, sort of an iconic, but flawed, Victorian equivalent to Batman if you will (See our interview with Ian Prinsloo
here). From that perspective it was probably a short leap to taking a comic book (or graphic novel) approach to almost every element of the adaptation and staging of this new production. One graphic novel in particular, and its film counterpart, had a big influence on both story and design elements of the production – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, but more on that later. What the comic book angle means in practical terms is that much of Gillette’s original dialogue has been pared down and the final act has been ditched in favour of an entirely new action-oriented finale. Character-wise the comic book/LXG film influence really only effects Moriarty, as his character is now portrayed more as a sort of arch-enemy/super-villain than simply the criminal mastermind of old. To really drive home the comic book template, Prinsloo incorporated the projection of static and progressive close-up panels/cells of various cast members eyes, point of view images, hands, notes, etc...onto side or overhead screens simultaneously to the action on-stage, in essence giving the audience a closer perspective on story elements as they unfold. It is a reasonable and novel approach to a rather thin storyline:

Madge and James Larrabee have been holding Alice Faulkner in an attempt to pry from her certain incriminating papers that could be used for lucrative blackmail purposes. Holmes has been hired to retrieve the papers from Miss Faulkner by the potential blackmail subject. He foils the Larrabees in their intentions right from the start, but is still unable to retrieve the papers from Miss Faulkner as he appears to be smitten by the courageous young woman. The Larrabees turn to Professor Moriarty to deal with Holmes, who sets up a trap in a gas chamber to rid himself of Holmes growing attentions. Holmes escapes the trap which leads to a final confrontation between the Master Detective and the Master Criminal.

For the most part, the new production follows the original play’s
plot quite faithfully in spirit, if not in specifics. We know we are on
new ground right from the opening when we first see a credit
projected onto a screen proclaiming the title as
Sherkock Holmes
in The Woman and the Spider
. This is immediately followed by
an introductory voice-over from Watson that paraphrases the
opening of
A Scandal in Bohemia only now with the substitution
of Alice Faulkner for Irene Adler as
The Woman. This nicely ties
the play to its source material of
SCAN and FINA and also gives
Watson slightly more presence, although it is still minimal since his
main scenes in the final act have been either reworked or entirely
removed. While the first 3 acts remain essentially the same in terms
of structure, dialogue has been streamlined, sacrificing much of the
original’s witty and elegant language, to keep the action flowing. Davidson’s demise in Act 2, previously only mentioned in passing, is now shown onstage to make it clear that Moriarty and his henchman Bassick are cruelly efficient villains who place little value on human life. Moriarty’s visit to Baker Street has been modified somewhat to emphasize the ‘flip-side of the same coin’ aspect between the hero and villain, unfortunately losing the ‘loaded firearm’ dialogue in the process. The much loved cigar scene in the gas chamber, an innovative and dramatic high point of the original play, has been needlessly altered so as to include a bit of gunplay before leading into the completely new finish. Hot on the heels of the gunplay is the inclusion of a visually stunning sequence, showing Holmes standing, in distinctive silhouette, against a fiery red background depicting the burning of Baker Street, created simply to facilitate a scene change.
Of course the biggest changes come with the final act. Originally
this act was a completely disjointed mess of loose ends that sloppily
tied up the storyline in a tedious and, let’s face it, drawn out and
anticlimactic dénouement that makes Moriarty look a complete fool
and has Holmes on the verge of marriage. Now instead we have a
clear-cut battle between iconic figures representing good and evil
that is practically torn from the pages of Conan Doyle’s
The Final
Problem
and a more fitting resolution to the love story element.
Okay, so Blackfriar’s Bridge is no Reichenbach Falls, but hey,
there’s an engaging, if less than believable, fight sequence and
a neat resolution to the love interest scenario, so it beats hell out
of Gillette’s original ending from my perspective! Is it perfect
Sherlock Holmes, nope, there’s some heavy hokum in the new
final action sequence, but it is successful comic book style drama.

DESIGN:

From a design perspective, the play is breathtakingly beautiful and draws heavily on its
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film influences, in terms of colour scheme, sets, lighting and costuming.

Scott Reid’s five cleverly constructed sets, utilizing a revolve for visible scene
changes between acts, are marvelous constructs. While it is a contradiction in
terms, I can only describe Reid’s sets as being both highly textured and starkly
expressionistic at the same time. In combination with Paul Mathiesen’s complex
and highly atmospheric lighting, the sets are remarkably effective in creating
mood and a strong sense of time and place. Moriarty’s Underground Lair, in
particular, is a perfect example of this – a sort of muted gunmetal blue/grey
colour scheme dominates the industrial nightmare of girders, submarine style
doorway, and cold metals throughout. Mathiesen adds a number of eerie
pulsating greenish light effects in strips and bars finishing off the impression
of Moriarty sitting in the centre of his web.
The League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen
film influence is never more obvious than in the colour choices
and general look here.

Jennifer Darbellay’s costume designs are perhaps a little more
Edwardian than Victorian, but are all, aside from one seriously
miss-judged coat for Moriarty, simply gorgeous and enhance the
characters personas perfectly. Again costume design elements
are strongly influenced by
LXG particularly in choice of colours
and materials. Moriarty and his henchman are often swathed in
long dark leather coats, emphasizing their most sinister aspects
while giving them a certain cool sexiness.

The only regrettably sour note in the production is in Peter
Moller’s use of strident and jarring music. The opening music
would have fit rather well in one of the
Planet of the Apes films
but is utterly out of place in this production. 

CAST:

As for the actors, well, the casting for this production is nothing less than inspired from top to bottom.

Eric Nyland as Sherlock Holmes is quite frankly the best cast Holmes I've seen in a
mighty long time. He'd be fantastic in a television series or film as Sherlock Holmes.
For once Holmes was youthful (30 or so), strikingly tall, painfully lean but still projecting
a strong physical presence, hawk-nosed and spoke with a perfectly acceptable accent
(although I admit that he did sound more than a tad like a younger Frank Langella). His
performance is fairly subtle, underplaying more often than not, yet he shifts effortlessly
from bored introspection to manic energy when required, which is particularly effective
in the sequence leading up to and following Holmes cocaine injection during Act 2. His
coked-up Holmes, casually tossing out sarcasm tinged witticisms to Watson and Terese
is a high spot of his performance. If there’s anyone out there looking to cast the next
television or film Holmes, take note, Eric Nyland is the man for the job!

This production’s Moriarty is a far more physical character than the ancient mathematics
Professor of Conan Doyle’s
The Final Problem. Blair Williams presents the Napoleon of
Crime as a charismatic obsessive madman, with a constant undercurrent of controlled rage, combined with obsessiveness and cold amusement. Williams is quite exhilarating to watch and a perfect balance to Nyland’s Holmes.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film influence is again felt here, as this Moriarty has much more in common with the super-villain-type as depicted in the film than with either Gillette or Conan Doyle’s idea of the character. Thankfully Williams never descends to the spitting, sneering silliness that characterized Richard Roxburgh’s performance in the film.

Jamie Konchak as Alice Faulkner is a pure delight. Script changes have made
Alice a far more dynamic character than in previous versions, presenting her as
a far more credible foil and love-interest for Holmes. Miss Konchak makes the
most of the part, bringing out a grim determination and equally grim sense of
humour in her Alice. Her quips at Larrabee’s expense and a surprise line in the
fifth act are handled with aplomb and draw some of the play’s best laughs.

Special mention must be made of Trevor Leigh’s scene-stealing performance
as James Larrabee. He entirely eclipses David Trimble’s comic relief role of
Sidney Prince in every shared seen, which is a pity as Trimble brings great
warmth to the out of his depth little safe cracker. Leigh is simply so strong that
he manages to make Larrabee a villainous cad, coward, buffoon and comic relief
all rolled into one without drifting into parody. Mind you, it’s a near thing at times,
but it’s one hell of a fun performance and evocative of some of the great character
actors of 1930s cinema. The only drawback to Leigh’s characterization of James
Larrabee is that it creates too strong a contrast to Natascha Girgis’ controlled
performance as the scheming Madge Larrabee. One can only wonder how the
coolly calculating Madge, who never seems the least bit off-balance no matter
how her plans go awry, can put up with her brother’s constant buffoonery.

Curt McKinstry’s Watson never quite gels as a character, but the
problem doesn’t stem from his performance, it is simply that he
has very little to do beyond chiding Holmes for his drug use in Act
2 and providing a sympathetic ear in Act 5, which he does perfectly
well.

The rest of the supporting cast are all quite effective in their
respective roles. Ryan Luhning is a spectacularly menacing and
hulking Bassick, Paul Cowling shifts between the roles of Forman,
Craigin and Lestrade effortlessly and Katherine Anne Sanders
hits just the right comic note as Terese the maid. As noted
previously, the casting is strong throughout.

CONCLUSION:

So, in the end, does the new production manage to successfully portray Sherlock Holmes as the world’s first super-hero in a comic-book type format? The answer, I’m afraid, is “sort of”. While there is no denying that this is a highly enjoyable and entertaining production that clearly achieves the director's intention of bringing Sherlock Holmes to the stage in an evocative comic-book manner, it falls a bit short in living up to the notion of Holmes as the world's first superhero-type. Sherlockian’s would, I
think, get far more out of the super-hero angle than the general
public. The play is a bit creaky in terms of plotting, always has
been, and the new stripped-down version with all its changes,
while dramatically more impressive, doesn’t help matters much in
trying to portray Holmes as a super-hero. Holmes fans have the
benefit of knowing their hero, which gives them an understanding
of the character that is not evident in the play alone, we know his
‘super’ qualities, but newcomers will doubtless be left wondering
what all the fuss is about. It’s not exactly Holmes at his most
ingenious. He makes few deductions, doesn’t have the opportunity
to show-off his disguise skills since the new finale omits that
sequence, falls for a potential blackmailer which sidelines him
somewhat from his purpose and seems to have a seriously difficult
time in besting Moriarty at both boxing and fencing. Sure he comes
through it all and eventually gains the upper hand on every front, but it just doesn’t convey the sense that this man is a master of his field that stands head and shoulders above all others.  A hero, most definitely, just not a particularly ‘super’ one. That being said, it’s a fun comic-book style play that manages to be considerably less hollow than the sort of films from which it draws its influence.

Oh, and it occurs to me that I've left that suit analogy dangling rather precariously. To answer my own question, well, no it isn't that same old suit, it is an utterly new suit, but it does fit and it is awfully comfortable, and it makes good use of old materials. So, in the end, it is a good thing. Sure it may require a bit of wear to really break it in, but it just goes to show that there's still plenty of mileage to be had from the much enjoyed original materials. What more could a Sherlockian ask for....go see it!
For more information on Theatre Calgary or to order tickets for Sherlock Holmes visit the
Theatre Calgary Website by clicking here!
Read our interview with Artistic Director Ian Prinsloo by clicking
here!
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REVIEWED by Charles Prepolec
Eric Nyland as Sherlock Holmes. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Eric Nyland as Holmes at Baker Street
Eric Nyland as Sherlock Holmes and Curt McKinstry as Watson. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Eric Nyland as Sherlock Holmes and Trevor Leigh as James Larrabee. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Blair Williams as Moriarty and Eric Nyland as Sherlock Holmes. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Ryan Luhning as Bassick, Blair Williams as Moriarty and Scott McAdam as Leary. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Trevor Leigh as James Larrabee and Jamie Konchak as Alice Faulkner. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Eric Nyland as Sherlock Holmes and Jamie Konchak as Alice Faulkner. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Jennifer Darbellay's Costume Designs. Photo by Jeff Campbell
Holmes and Larrabee in the Gas Chamber
Moriarty and Holmes on Blackfriar's Bridge
Costume Design Sketch
Bassick, Moriarty and Leary
Eric Nyland as Sherlock Holmes. Photo by Trudi Lee for Theatre Calgary
Eric Nyland as Holmes
Larrabee tortures Alice
Holmes and Watson share a quiet moment
Holmes and Alice: Will they or won't they?
And for another Sherlockian perspective...
Theatre Calgary's SHERLOCK HOLMES

REVIEWED
by J. R. Campbell
Capsule Review:
Marvelous. Go see it. Now.

Slightly more in depth review:
What, still here? Oh very well. It should be noted, for those poor souls who have yet to experience the glory of Calgary (Stampede city, home of the Flames, heart of the golden west, and ancestral home to this patriotic reviewer), that
Theatre Calgary is our city’s oldest professional theatre company. Comfortably ensconced in  downtown Calgary at the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts (across from city hall) they’ve taken over the 750 seat Max Bell theatre. Calgary boosts many community theatres and semi-professional venues, but Theatre Calgary is not one of them. Pro-fes-sion-al! They bring a great deal of clout to their productions and to this Sherlock Holmes production in particular. The sound, the lighting, the sets, the costumes, all of the technical aspects of this play are outstanding and deserving of far more praise than I’m giving them here. It’s wonderful to see what a team of pros can accomplish when they roll up their sleeves and they’ve certainly attacked all aspects of this play with gusto. They’re flexing their muscles here, showing why they’re the biggest dogs on the block and the results are spectacular.

The director, Ian Prinsloo, has undertaken several large challenges with this play. He wanted to remain faithful to the Gillette original which, after all, was an enormous success in its time and casts a huge shadow over theatre history. At the same time, he hoped to infuse the play with a modern energy, the drive of an action film or comic book adventure. To accomplish this he reached back to the Sherlockian Canon, pulling in elements of Doyle’s writing left out of the original Gillette version of the play. I must confess to being amused by this, in an effort to update this old play they’ve pulled elements from the original (and therefore less modern) source. In my opinion, this speaks volumes about the timelessness of Doyle’s writings.

The cast is uniformly good, their performances often surprising. Having read the original Gillette work I believed myself well prepared for these characters. I was wrong. The smarminess of Jim Larrabee, the icy ruthlessness of his sister, the nervous twittering of Prince the hapless locksmith, Bassick’s silent menace, all so much richer than can be pulled from dry pages of a script and each actor seems to have attained a complete mastery of their role.

Curt McKinstry’s Watson is presented as the steadfast friend Sherlockians have
come to know. This represents a departure from the Gillette in which Watson is
something of a nag and a willing accomplice in need of clear direction. McKinstry
brings a solidity and dependability to the role while managing to convey to the
audience, in his limited time on stage, there is more to the man than his friendship
with Holmes. It’s refreshing to see Holmes and Watson address each other as equals,
Watson acts as Holmes’ second at the climactic duel, holding Holmes hat and jacket
but in the ensuing medical emergency it is Holmes, anxious to help, who must wait
nervously for Watson. I can’t explain why but it just seems wrong for Holmes to carry
a pistol, it belongs in Watson’s steady hand and, in this production, that’s exactly
where it is.

If Holmes is the original super-hero then Moriarty, aptly played by Blair Williams , is
the original super-villain. Madness gleaming in his eye, a sneer on his face, Williams
gleefully marches through this part leaving a trail of bleeding bodies behind him. This
is Moriarty in the full theatrical history of the role, handsome, menacing and ruthless.
Williams plays the part close to, but never over, the top. There’s a wonderful moment
in the secret lair where Madge Larrabee meets the Professor’s gaze and sees through
his ruse. This is definitely no underling!

And finally, Holmes. What a delight it is to see someone who physically resembles
Holmes, the great detective. Nyland moves about the stage looking as if he were
born wearing the deerstalker and cape yet never relies on the familiar props to set
his character. He is Holmes, with both the heroic and human sides of the character
on display. Even if this production lacked the atmosphere of the grand sets, the wonderful costumes and lighting… if this play was being staged in the church basement with your forgetful, dotty Aunt Hilda in the role of Alice Faulkner, Eric Nyland as Holmes would still make the ticket price a sound Sherlockian investment.

So, go see it. I know you are far from Calgary’s borders, you fear the western Canadian winter and the strange ways of western folk. I have no words of comfort to offer, winter is cold, Calgarians strange. Come anyway. No one said being a Sherlockian was going to be easy.

For Sherlockian Eyes Only:

Oh woe to our strange breed, that we cannot see all that is right and good without also calling attention to that which is wrong and, well, less than good. Have I not gushed? Have I not, in my own humble way, related the enjoyment I experienced taking in this production? Now you wish me to speak ill of that which I have befriended, to confess disappointments, to nitpick. And how do I respond? Am I not Sherlockian? Of course I can nitpick, often for pages.

Let me start this dark chapter by reminding all within earshot that the perfect Holmes exists only in that realm of imagination you share with Doyle. Is this the Holmes of the Canon? Decidedly not. Is this Gillette’s Holmes? Yes, more or less. Ian Prinsloo has attempted the impossible by trying to meld Gillette’s play to the source material. It is a noble effort but one which, in Sherlockian realms, is bound to leave those who study and love the Gillette wishing for an unadultered performance while the more canonically bent yearn for something faithful to the scared writings. There is a long-standing blood feud between the literary and theatrical Holmes and this attempt at reconciliation, well intended as it is, can not mend this rift.

This is the Gillette Holmes in most regards. Far from the solitary figure of the writings, this Holmes has the trusted spy Forman on his side, Billy the plucky pageboy and, in this version, Scotland Yard under his command. This is a witty Holmes, a charming Holmes, an invincible Holmes, yet none of this is Theatre Calgary’s fault. This is Gillette’s legacy. Agree with it or not...

I choose not. This is not the Holmes I know. Yet I was very surprised how much I enjoyed spending an evening with Gillette’s Holmes. For me that came as a real surprise, like many Sherlockians I have an entrenched position on the Great Detective, a position I am prepared - eager even - to defend to my dying breath. Enjoying this play was somewhat akin to falling off a perch; my enjoyment of this Holmes felt almost treasonous. Of course, after the curtains closed, when the hurly-burly was done, I woke the next morning and found the cherished Holmes of my imagination was still waiting for me.

Moriarty. The criminal mastermind, the emperor of crime, the spider in his web. I’ve always felt Moriarty the strangest character in the canon. He is, it seems, the only villain whose crimes are not detailed. Every crime is Moriarty’s, not just in London but across the Empire. Do I approve of Prinsloo’s Moriarty? No, I don’t. I can’t. To accept this charismatic villain is to dismiss the somber, joyless calculus professor of the Canon and I can not bring myself to release that enigma. Prinsloo’s Moriarty is an immensely enjoyable figure, the Moriarty of the wonderful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel, a Bond villain worthy of inclusion in any action film, but I cannot accept him as Holmes’ nemesis.

The tinkering from Gillette comes at price. Hearing Watson’s voice-overs seemed appropriate, hearing Alice Faulkner referred to as
The Woman was unpleasantly jarring. I enjoyed seeing Moriarty preside over the dispatching of Davidson but, from the original, I missed the click of his revolver as he attempts to dispatch Holmes at Baker Street (unaware Holmes removed the bullets from his weapon). Holmes speaks of his cocaine addiction with words lifted straight from the canon, yet they ring hollow when spoken in the midst of Holmes’ greatest, most exciting case. The gas chamber sequence is beautifully managed on the revolving stage, allowing the audience to follow the action inside and out in the alley but lost is Holmes clever misdirection with the cigar. Watson is admirably reformed in this production, much more the stalwart friend than the poor chap who needs everything explained to him, but it costs the character dialogue and presence. Yet, even having seen the original last act admirably performed by Frank Langella (on what was a dim and very likely bootleg tape) I can only applaud Prinsloo’s choice to alter the original last act. Holmes giving up detective work to claim the love of a good woman? No! It will not do! I don’t care what Doyle’s telegram said, Gillette just went too far there. Put me on Blackfriars Bridge, let me plunge into the river in defeat, to the last I will grapple with thee!

In fact, a very bold choice was offered in this adaptation, one in keeping with the super-hero concept. Holmes and Moriarty grapple on Blackfriars Bridge, much as they did at Reichenbach, but here Holmes (despite being wounded) triumphs over his foe. Very much on side with Gillette’s Holmes but I couldn’t help but speculate on how an ending in which both Holmes and Moriarty hit the drink would have played. Give the end dialogue with Alice to Watson, give the stalwart friend the compassionate presence he had in Gillette’s final act. Once everyone but Watson has left, let Holmes climb back on the bridge and sneak off to Europe for his hiatus. Sigh. I suppose such musings merely show which side of the literary-theatrical chasm I stand on.

Any other gripes? Oh sure, the Baker Street set is adequate but uninspired. How I would love to dress a Baker Street set, that mantle, those mementos, the VR shot into the wall. Calling Holmes’ apartment 221 and ½ Baker Street seems more a quirk than a fault but, well, its quirky and something Sherlockians in the audience will trip over. Moriarty’s costume is, at times, on the wrong side of over the top but, hey, it is in keeping with the revised character. Billy the pageboy is not a boy any longer and his presence struck some as odd. I felt that, if we’re doing the Gillette, Billy needs to be there though I was quite happy to limit the plucky rascal to a token appearance.

Still, for all its missed opportunities and compromises, this is a worthy production deserving of Sherlockian interest. It’s an odd duck for Sherlockians, a curious blend of old and new, but one which made me examine some long-held, fundamental Sherlockian convictions while improving my understanding of the historical Holmes. Surely worth the price of a ticket.
Curt McKinstry as Dr. Watson. Photo by Trudie Lee for Theatre Calgary
Curt McKinstry  as Watson
Blair Williams as Professor Moriarty. Photo by Trudie Lee for Theatre Calgary
Blair Williams as Moriarty