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Review: “Sherlock Holmes” At The Dallas Theater Center

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 Dr. Watson (Keiran Connolly) is not actually using a butter knife to threaten the great detective (Chamblee Ferguson), but it might be more interesting if he did. All photos by Karen Almond

When it comes to content and style, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure is very much in director Kevin Moriarty’s gas-lit, steam-powered wheelhouse. The signal trait Moriarty has brought to Dallas Theater Center productions is a boyish enthusiasm for gee-wow theatricality in general and the expanded staging capabilities of the Wyly Theatre in particular. Recall the opening airliner crash in The Tempest or the mobile seating arrangement in The Wiz, the one that had audience sections rolling around the stage like bump-em cars.

This is the Theater as Great Big Toy, whether it’s up-to-date digital projections or a wind-up retro apparatus. The Final Adventure, for example, comes with a proscenium facade, painted and lit to look like an ornate, old-style London theater. It also has a pipe-and-vent-filled factory, a much simpler version of the Victorian workhouse Moriarty had hissing and clanging away in A Christmas Carol.

Orson Welles once described the RKO movie studio as ‘the biggest toy train set any boy ever had” — and Welles’ cinematic achievements are evidence of the tinkering creativity this outlook can unleash. But the results can also be sterile and clattery, so much geeky gizmo-love. The Wiz, after all, wasn’t very good. The lumbering seat sections were mostly a distraction, a slow kiddie ride at the amusement park.

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Some of the best aspects of the DTC production: Jennifer Ables’ costumes and Russell Parkman’s set

As a heroic character, Sherlock Holmes was the Batman of his age, a late Victorian adolescent’s fantasy of what a cool guy-avenger might be like, right down to the detective’s antipathy toward — ick — girls. He has all the chemical flasks and skulls and disguises a boy could want, stuffed away in his bachelor digs with a sidekick and a friendly, invisible mom-cleaning lady. He’s basically his own boss, acts rudely to people yet everyone still needs him anyway, and he gets to show them all how much smarter he is than anyone else in the room. This is immature male heaven.

So a Holmes stage thriller would seem a sure-fire fit for Moriarty’s boy’s-adventure-story outlook. But while the DTC’s The Final Adventure is not actively boring, it’s not all that ‘adventurous’ either. It putters along like a comfortable trolley on a predictable city route. True, part of the trouble is the tired script. The play is officially credited to both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette, but editor Leslie Klinger, in his authoritative, three-volume New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, says Conan Doyle had nothing to do with devising it. Gillette was a matinee-idol American actor who created the show in 1899 as a vehicle for himself and had it approved by Sherlock’s creator. He toured in it for decades, establishing his Sherlock as the stage interpretation. It influenced the incarnations that followed, including the famous Basil Rathbone films. Some of Gillette’s dramatic inventions — “Elementary, my dear Watson!” — became part of the accepted iconography even though they aren’t original Doyle-isms.

Today, you can still visit the other result of Gillette’s efforts: It’s called Gillette Castle, and it’s the actor’s baronial home on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River, now part of a state park and well worth the ferry ride across to see it. Basically, we’re talking another kind of boyhood fantasy here — building a medieval castle for your home — but one crossed with an actor’s wish for his own permanent stage set.

Gillette’s home tells you a lot about the melodramatic flourishes in Gillette’s script. The face-offs between Holmes and the evil Professor Moriarty, for instance, often sound as though the two of them are puffed-up, bickering ten-year-olds. ‘I’m plotting your destruction!‘ Moriarty crows. Holmes’ rejoinder: ‘And know that I am plotting your destruction!’

“No, me, I was first!” It would take only an eye roll to turn all this into camp. Playwright Stephen Dietz has updated Gillette’s script: We get discussions of Holmes’ infamous use of cocaine and some (chastely clothed) bedroom time between Holmes and his opponent Irene Adler. Dietz has added welcome bits of humor as well. But the script’s indebtedness to several classic Holmes’ tales remains, notably “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which happens to be the very first Holmes story ever published. So when The Final Adventure isn’t showcasing what Professor Moriarty dismisses as Holmes’ deductive “parlor tricks,” it’s going through some rather familiar plot motions.

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It’s a show about hats: Connolly as Watson, Jessica Turner as Irene Adler, Ferguson as Holmes

Several of my fellow critics blame the show’s doldrums on the hokey script alone. But I maintain the production’s failures are part and parcel with Moriarty’s enthusiasms and limitations as a director. The Final Adventure is like one of Moriarty’s Shakespeare stagings — without the benefit of Shakespeare’s poetry and dialogue, without his feel for character and for character-revealing drama.

To his credit, Moriarty did not reduce The Final Adventure into a campy exercise (although Hassan el-Amin’s one-note, bellowing performance as the King of Bohemia comes close to doing the job for him). Nor did Moriarty ‘modernize’ Holmes, as several critics have clearly wished. They wanted some version of all the recent Holmes (and Holmes variants) which have twitchy, Asperger-y symptoms: Hugh Laurie’s House, Tony Shalhoub’s Monk, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

But with both campy and neurotic interpretations off the table, Moriarty seems to have provided his actors with very little additional direction. Chamblee Ferguson has proven himself more than our most likable comic actor — as his various Prosperos, Scrooges and Herr Ludwigs at the DTC attest. But without making Holmes obsessive-compulsive, self-tortured or silly, what’s left for him to work with? His Holmes is authoritative without being tyrannical, he’s as drily amusing as one would expect, but he’s also not particularly vivid.

Fact is, Holmes has never been just the icy “thinking machine” that he and his fans see him as. Recall that the detective story was invented by Mr. Gothic — Edgar Allan Poe. As much as Holmes may shine the light of Victorian reason, there’s also a great deal of the capital-R decadent Romantic in him. He’s a creature of the night, of fogs and moors, an aesthete who enjoys his violin, his cocaine and his monk-like solitude. The London he traverses is a dank city of murders and criminals and aristocrats with secrets. Holmes is a sharp-eyed appreciator of mystery and urban shadows: He’s akin to a British Baudelaire — if Baudelaire (a fan of Poe) ever got a license to work as a private investigator.

Ferguson’s Holmes conveys little of this, there’s not much dash or darkness here. He’s mostly the proper English gentleman who happens to be eccentrically brilliant. In such a case, one normally might blame the actor, but the same weaknesses befall Keiran Connolly’s Dr. Watson and Jessica Turner’s Irene Adler. Connolly may have the worst of it; Watson is the ultimate magician’s assistant. Dietz’ script even pokes fun at Watson’s second-banana status. We get to chuckle at how he basically stands there, gawps and says things like “By Jove!” whenever Holmes pulls another improbable conclusion out of his deerstalker hat. But Watson can have more grit and texture than this — he’s a scarred veteran of the British Afghan wars.

It’s Turner’s Irene Adler, though, who’s the most disappointingly colorless of the trio. Partly that’s because we never expect much drama from the dutiful Watson. Adler, in contrast, is the opera diva, the sly, demanding, empowered female who’s supposed to add sex, danger and unpredictability to the proceedings. But after some initial feints and counter-moves, this Adler becomes mostly a damsel in distress, and Turner practically makes her a jolly good pal about it all. There’s no sense of threat — either the cliched, dominatrix-seductress kind or the quietly-outwitting-the-mastermind kind.

Taking our cue from that cute-retro set, the idea seems to have been to re-create an inoffensive Victorian stage entertainment — complete with wax dummies for characters. In sharp contrast, Taylor Harris brings in a bit of the London music hall’s vitality and humor. He plays a giant, thuggish henchman, and he’s not asked to do much more than provide some comic relief, a lumbering threat and a working-class accent,  but he does a lot with that little.

The disappointments in Sherlock are becoming familiar at the Theater Center. Moriarty doesn’t seem to trust actors to hold a moment, to elevate a scene, so he keeps inserting all this other stuff. In his strongest, most compelling show to date — Oedipus el Rey — he used a stripped-down arena staging that actually worked to the show’s advantage and to the actors’ as well. Otherwise, what we get is Moriarty’s Great Big Lifeless Toy. The rich set design (Russell Parkman), lighting design (Clifton Taylor) and costume design (Jennifer Ables) deliver most of the drama and atmosphere that’s here.

In fact, one might well enjoy something that looked like this Final Adventure — if it were smaller, came wrapped like a Christmas gift and you could crank it up and let it rattle and zip around the floor. Otherwise, it just feels rather quaint — like a broken old toy you’ve discovered at the back of a closet somewhere.