BWW Reviews: Investigate WATSON at Gretna Theatre and Deduce a Success
The title of the play is, its protagonist says, rather large. Since it is WATSON: THE LAST GREAT TALE OF THE LEGENDARY SHERLOCK HOLMES, we might agree with the good doctor. And yes - it is indeed a Sherlock Holmes tale that is not entirely about the great detective, but about his loyal biographer, John H. Watson, M.D., a man who in the large canon of literature about Holmes never complained, never protested, and cheerfully did nearly all, if not all, that Holmes requested he do. If that sounds slightly unrealistic, playwright Jaime Roblado would agree with you.
First performed by SacRed Fools Theater Company, and winning multiple LA Theatre Awards in 2011, its East Coast premiere has just been held, in an unfortunately very short run, at Gretna Theatre at Mount Gretna Playhouse. It's a comedy of sorts, not quite a farce, though it clearly owes a huge debt of gratitude to Nicholas Meyer's THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION - but an equal debt to Simon Coble's and Patrick Barlow's Tony and Olivier-winning THE 39 STEPS. As performed under Jason Summers' direction at Gretna, there are also brief moments of AVENUE Q, with puppeted Turkish and Russian heads of state; of Monty Python, with a Michael Palin-inspired Queen Victoria; and similar flashes of comic brilliance from other sources. Very little good comedy is completely original, and if one must borrow, this show borrows from some of the very best comedy before it.
In the Holmes canon, Watson would drop his hat and run to Holmes' side even during his marriage - or was that marriages? - to his wife - or was that wives? - named Mary. (He seems to have been married more than once, with a certain attraction to a certain name, or else actual author Arthur Conan Doyle had trouble with consistency.) Is that really plausible? Isn't there a limit to "Yes," even from the most devoted friend? And that's the premise here. Holmes wants Watson to help him deliver a mysterious box to a political summit in the Mediterranean. Watson wants to see his wife. Holmes sees an evil villain, Moriarty, at every turn and in every place - Watson sees Holmes' cocaine problem. Holmes is inspired by reflection on the Queen; Watson is driven by thoughts of his home and his wife.
Jef Canter, a Gretna veteran like Summers, is the stoic, and, yes, heroic, John Watson, played with a Nigel Bruce look and voice but with, fortunately, a far less bumbling attitude. Comedy needn't rely on making a character into a clumsy, foolish fat man, and Watson was, in the literature, no one's fool and no one's clown. Michael Frederic, as Holmes, brings strength, intelligence, determination - and a touch of madness. They are fine, even inspired, performers, but it is Todd Loughry who lends much of the wildness to the play. As the train conductor (and several other people), he makes the train ride from London to the coast into a 39 STEPS inspired madhouse even before Holmes begins racing on top of the train (a signature scene of the John Buchan-inspired theatre piece is the train chase, the hero's coat-tails flapping in the wind). As Moriarty he lacks the traditional descriptors that made Doyle's readers visualize a human snake (rather Voldemort-like in appearance), but his attitude reflects that same snake-like character.
Also notable as a secondary cast member is Adam Pearce, a recent AMDA graduate, who plays the pivotal roles of Sigmund Freud and of Queen Victoria. His Victoria is a perfectly Pythonesque depiction of Her Royal Highness, while his Freud is a nice piece of broad comedy.
A set of "stagehands" run on and off-stage playing whoever is needed at the moment, from train passengers to street thugs and all points between, in much the same fashion as the Proteans from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, just as humorously and just as successfully. Irene Adler, Holmes' love interest, is also present, played by Mary McNulty; Taylor Coriell debuts at Gretna as Watson's wife and mental salvation, Mary. Troy Gochenour, also debuting at Gretna, is Holmes' shrewd and in this case non-corpulent brother, Mycroft, whose scene with the Queen is a comic delight.
It's true that the book of this show could be tighter. There are what feel like loose ends, and the mystery isn't much of one, but that's not really the point of the show. Although one might take it as a show about Sherlock Holmes, it's a show about John Watson and his relations with Sherlock Holmes, and how he discovers both heroism and the idea that perhaps being a hero doesn't suit everyone. The ending is unexpected, especially for those who are locked into the traditional Holmes-Watson behavior mode, but after Watson's experiences, it's perhaps more appropriate than the one that regular viewers of the various Holmes television series may have come to anticipate as a given.
The set, by Kyle Dixon, is quite charming, as well as apropos, and the music composed for the show by Ryan Thomas Johnson is appropriately mood-evocative.
Unfortunately, this show was not scheduled for a run of the same length as the musical productions at Gretna this summer; however, it deserves to be produced again in the area for people to be able to enjoy this work. Like THE 39 STEPS, this is melodrama wrapped in comedy, and more comic than not despite the given plot. Fans of the one will most likely enjoy the other very much indeed. Holmes aficionados, who usually know all of the references by heart, will enjoy the twists on the theme. It should also be noted that Roblado is currently working on a sequel to WATSON, which, if it holds true to this form, should also be a worthwhile comic endeavor.
For more information on the Gretna Theatre schedule, visit gretnatheatre.com.
Photo Credit: Michael Feldser Photography/Gretna Theatre