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The characters, not the story, make Sherlock Holmes

As melodramas go, William Gillette's adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is serviceable. And the Alley Theatre's production, headed up by director Gregory Boyd, does well by the quixotic literary figure who some would argue is the most famous in all of Western literature.

Tall, thin and brooding, with a faraway sadness in his puritan-looking face, Todd Waite makes a perfect Holmes. His dark intelligence and wry humor give shape to the sleuth, who's filled with ennui and turns to cocaine to "escape the commonplace of existence." This character is more than a great detective; his depth makes him worth caring about.

Most everyone else in this shadowy Victorian world is wonderfully evil and pasty-faced. There's John Tyson's Sidney Prince, a blind albino who cracks safes; Josie de Guzman's Madge Larrabee, a skinny spinster who wears ridiculously feathered hats; and, of course, James Black's Professor Moriarty, Holmes's bald and troll-like nemesis, who plots devilish crimes with malevolent and oily ease from his underground lair.

The story that brings these characters together is the least interesting part of the night. A pack of missing letters gets mixed up with Moriarty's desire to destroy Holmes at last! And so the evil Moriarty and his cohorts lure Holmes to an abandoned building, where they plan to get the letters and gas him.

If Gillette's Sherlock Holmes doesn't give us much of a whodunit plot line, it has still had an indelible impact on the Sherlock Holmes we all know. He pieced together the narrative from two of Doyle's stories and then played the title character for 30 years, beginning in 1899. It was Gillette who came up with the famous line "Elementary, my dear Watson." And Gillette gave Holmes his unforgettable curved meerschaum pipe. The power of these images proves how important Holmes has been as a literary creation and a cultural artifact. But his story here is only lukewarm.

 
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