By Byrne Harrison
Seeing the People's Light & Theatre production of Jeremy Paul's The Secret of Sherlock Holmes is like seeing two shows for the price of one. Whether or not this is a good thing will depend on the style of theatre that you enjoy.
Paul's play only hints at the stories that Holmes aficionados know by heart. His purpose in writing the play is to explore the relationship between these lonely men who become fast friends, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, from their first meeting on Watson's return from the 2nd Afghan War to Watson's discovery three years after Holmes' disappearance at Reichenbach Falls that he has been alive and in hiding, leaving Watson to believe him dead.
The first act of the play is very presentational. Holmes and Watson narrate their own stories, directly addressing the audiences and jumping in occasionally to perform brief scenes. The effect is not unlike attending a lecture by two genial professors, interesting perhaps, but not terribly dramatic. It does, however, allow Paul to give a great deal of backstory for Holmes and Watson's relationship in a short period of time.
The second act of the play, taking place in Holmes' apartment after his return from the dead, leaves the narration behind and relies on a more representational style of theatre. Holmes explains his "death" at Reichenbach Falls, his years spent in hiding, and the secret - one that he has kept from Watson for many years - about Holmes' arch-nemesis, London crime boss Professor Moriarty.
Rather than minimizing the differences between the two acts, director Stephen Novelli has accentuated them, primarily through the use of scenic designer James F. Pyne, Jr.'s radically different sets. In the first act, the storytelling phase of the play, Pyne creates a spartan set with minimal furniture and sets that primarily consist of white, movable flats brought to life by Lauren Mandilian's excellent video projections. The second act recreates Holmes' apartment in plush, vivid, Victorian detail from the books, masks, weapons and other knickknacks to the textured wallpaper and oriental rug. The change is swift and exciting, leading many a surprised audience member who stepped out at intermission to express shock and delight at the transformation.
Actors Peter DeLaurier (Holmes) and Mark Lazar (Watson) give solid performances, creating versions of Holmes and Watson who do not seem to be merely amalgams of the popular film and television incarnations. The two share a good chemistry, no doubt accentuated by their experience playing Holmes and Watson in the comedy Sherlock Holmes & The Case of the Jersey Lily at People's Light & Theatre in 2008. Lazar in particular is very affecting as the outwardly jovial, but extremely protective Dr. Watson.
While there is a lot that is right with this production, ultimately it is undone by Paul's script. In his desire to have Holmes and Watson be storytellers, both in terms of their narration in the first act and in their revelations to one another in the second, Paul has created a play full of words, but without much drama. And while DeLaurier and Lazar are strong storytellers, the play is simply too static, leaving the audience longing to see some action and adventure, not merely to have it described to them.
The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
By Jeremy Paul
Directed by Stephen Novelli
Production Manager: Charles T. Brastow
Scenic Designer: James F. Pyne, Jr.
Costume Designer: Marla J. Jurglanis
Lighting Designer: Gregory Scott Miller
Sound Designer: Robert Kaplowitz
Video Designer: Lauren Mandilian
Production Stage Manager: Patricia G. Sabato
Technical Director: Joseph Franz
Scene Shop Foreman: Dylan Jamison
Scenic Painter: Will Scribner
Scenic Carpenter: Jefferson Haynes
master Electrician: Gregory Scott Miller
Assistant Master Electrician: Chris Hallenbeck
Costume Shop Manager: Marla J. Jurglanis
Cutter/Draper: Abbie Wysor
Wardrobe: Bridget Anne Brennan
Properties Master: Elizabeth Stump
Resident Dramaturg: Elizabeth Poole
Stage Management Assistant: Mike Chittenden
Featuring: Peter DeLaurier (Sherlock Holmes) and Mark Lazar (Dr. Watson)
People's Light & Theatre
39 Conestoga Road
July 7 - August 8, 2010
UPDATE: The Secret of Sherlock Holmes has been extended through August 15th.