Monday, December 3, 2012

Sherlock Holmes & the Case of the Christmas Carol—Artists Repertory Theatre—Portland, OR


"Dole/Dickens - An Uneasy Alliance"


Sherlock Holmes… plays at ART through December 30th.  It is written by John Longenbaugh and directed by Jon Kretzu.  ART is located at SW Alder & 16th Ave.  Contact them at www.artistsrep.org or call 503-241-1278 for ticket/season information.

This is the second time (first, being Triangle    Productions) this weekend I’ve reviewed a show with a terrific cast being hampered by a flawed script.  The intent of the play is to join Dickens’s Scrooge with Doyle’s Holmes.  As far as the script goes, this union is forced, at best.  But a wonderful cast manages to pull Christmas magic from a shaky premise.

As the story begins, Mr. Holmes (Michael Mendelson) coldly ignores and shuns his closest companions, Dr. Watson (Tim Blough) and Mrs. Hudson (Jane Fellows).  With that accomplished, he sits alone on Christmas Eve to contemplate his barren existence.  Thus arrives Moriarty (Tobias Anderson) from the grave.  As penance for all his evil doings, he forewarns Sherlock of visits he will have of three spirits, sent to alter his behavior.

The first spirit (Nathan Crosby) illuminates a lonely youth (Matthew Kerrigan) of Holmes, where he alienates himself from his family and his true love, Becky (Melissa Whitney).  The second spirit (Gary R. Powell) exposes the present day, in which he is a silent witness to those around him, as to how much he really is loved and needed.  The third spirit propels him to a future in which the world is ravaged by war and destruction, and he will become a Moriarty-like contributor.

I think we all know the outcome.  Holmes sees the errors of his ways and becomes a changed man.  He is redeemed.  He embraces his friends and Christmas and even solves a mystery in the bargain.  Such is the Beauty of this Season!

The entire cast (as mentioned) is wonderful.  Most of them play numerous roles and do them all very well.  They are all articulate and precise in their speech, lending well to the diverse portrayals of each of their characters.

Outstanding among the supporting players are Mr. Anderson (Moriarty, et. al.), a veteran of many years in Portland theatre.  He shines in every role he plays.  Next he will be seen in a one-man show, The Illustrated Bradbury, based on stories by one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury.  It will be produced by Theatre/Theater in the Spring. 

Also Gary R. Powell (Spirit 2, et. al.), another long-time Portland veteran is a joy to watch in the many incarnations he creates on the stage.  (I had the pleasure of acting with him many moons ago in The Firebugs.)  A true professional.  And Mr. Blough gives a heart-felt performance as Watson.  You see the complexity of his emotions toward his friend, Holmes, and the hurt he must feel when pushed away.

And the acting of Holmes by Mr. Mendelson (another local veteran) is spot on.  He has the right look and feel (script notwithstanding) of the character.  His range of emotions of this (uneasy) marriage of Ebenezer and Sherlock seems quite genuine.  This character dominates the story and the actor must likewise do so with the role, as he does.

The scenic design by Jeff Seats is pliable and works well in the many settings that are called for in the story.  Likewise, the direction by Mr. Kretzu keeps the action flowing, in and out of the different scenes, with nary a misstep as to where they are, sometimes with only minimal settings as a suggestion.

The costumes, on the other hand, don’t always succeed.  The flimsy “mask” of the  first spirit is an amateurish attempt at anonymity.  The costume of Spirit 2 is silly, at best, looking like a giant leprechaun.  Spirit 3 fits the setting of the future (as written), being an industrial black smoke stack, but it comes across more of a toy than anything scary, albeit the  mechanics of it, (the same, I assume, as the boat in their Jack Goes Boating) is quite effective.  This, of course, could all be called for in the script and, if so, is not the fault of the Costume Designer (Jessica Bobillot).  The rest of the costumes are quite compelling.

The fault, then, “lies not in our ‘stars,’” but in the material.  The attempt of meshing two famous, legendary, fictional characters into one story is dangerous from the outset.  You must, at least, have two compatible genres and, in this case, you don’t.  Yes, they are both  written by British authors about loners “living” at approximately the same time (late 1800’s).  But that is where the resemblance ends.

Dickens’s Scrooge, is a morality character, journeying in a tale about “sin” and redemption.  Doyle’s Holmes is a brilliant detective solving crimes.  In Longenbaugh’s interpretation, Holmes, in the first act, is simply mean-spirited toward his closest companions for no apparent reason.  (Yes, Doyle’s Holmes can be aloof, arrogant and aggravating at times toward people but never deliberately mean.) 

And his childhood doesn’t really seem so bleak (except for his mother dying) as his brother, Mycroft, seems very supportive and he obviously has the love of Becky.  But, again,for no discernible reason, he spurns both of these gestures of warmth.

The second act works the best, seeing the importance of his influence on people and situations.  But the third act seems more of an indictment on War rather than having anything to do with the immediate story.  (Interesting note, there was a television presentation by Hallmark, I believe, in the 60’s called Carol For Another Christmas, which had a similar theme, but the formula was used throughout the tale.)  In short, the joining of various themes/genres in this play, doesn’t often work.

Does this mean the show is not worth seeing?  Absolutely not.  The cast is excellent and should be applauded.  And is it not the holiday season wherein feelings of joy and good fellowship should rein?  You bet.  And this production, by the end, does leave you with that.

A side note, one of ART’s Season Sponsors, the Hotel Deluxe (only a block away), has an excellent Happy Hour menu and a terrific brunch.  I highly recommend it.  And if you do go to one, or both of these venues, tell them Dennis sent you.