Dead Men's Tales

Long since set on the British Empire, the sun shines eternal on Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle's detecting doppelganger has survived happily through dozens of literary and film versions, parodies and sequels over the course of one century, and looks robust enough to flourish through at least another. At the moment, the game's afoot at Main Street Theater in a cozily entertaining production of Paul Giovanni's "new Sherlock Holmes play," The Crucifer of Blood.

I haven't gone back to Doyle's originals, but Crucifer is said to be based on "The Sign of Four" with "loose borrowings" from other Holmes stories. Despite one or two minor loose ends, the narrative is seamless enough, and the playwright has happily refrained from the temptation to modernize his antiquated atmospherics.

Like many Holmes tales, Crucifer begins in 1857, in the shadowy realms of the empire, where three feckless British soldiers stationed in India conspire to steal a maharajah's treasure and then fall out over the spoils. They've sworn a blood oath over their corrupt alliance; 30 years later, when the bloody reverberations reach 221-B Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes, accompanied by his faithful sidekick and amanuensis, Dr. Watson, presides over the progressive revelations of greed, betrayal, addiction and multiple murders most foul.

Much of the pleasure of the Holmes tales derives from their greenhouse-exotic atmosphere of bohemian Victoriana underlain with legendary colonial debauchery, and your delight in the play will be directly proportional to your credulity for this sort of thing. I suppose I'm as credulous as the next armchair detective when it comes to these boys' adventure tales in high period costume, with ratiocination, treachery and heroism writ large. On stage they seem perhaps a little too ripe for instant parody -- Conan Doyle's arcana puff with the dust of the gentleman's library -- but that too has its pleasures, as the actors are genially invited to go over the top in portraying savages and scoundrels, cutthroats and mountebanks, innocents and idiots -- and of course the inimitable Holmes himself.

The company here is rife with the usual collection of Holmesian desperadoes, straight out of the actor's trunk marked melodrama. There's the condescending Major Alistair Ross (Joel Sandel), wrapped in the mantle of military respectability until he sees his chance at a fortune; drunken Captain Neville St. Claire (Kit Fordyce), content with whiskey and women until he gets a taste of opium; conspirator Jonathan Small (Mike Cahill), determined to outwit or out-murder his equally treacherous colleagues; Irene St. Clair (Melody Green), the captain's beautiful young daughter, who knows his guilty secrets and has a few of her own; the oafish butler (Matthew Harrison) and the thickheaded police inspector Lestrade (Layton Payne). Throw in the odd native (Hindu, Afghan and "Mohammedan" for good measure) and the bland Dr. Watson (Mark Jenkins) as deferential foil to the irrepressible Holmes, and the gang's all here.

Every actor should get the chance to be Sherlock Holmes at least once in his life, and Jerry Miller responds to his with gusto. Coked up a few moments after his entrance, hair raked back and eyes flashing, Miller's Holmes is pallorous, arrogant, mischievous, commanding, condescending and indefatigable: "I am a brain, Watson -- the rest of me is a mere appendix." Despite the occasional lapse into shouting, Miller's fine performance anchors the production, and director Freeman Williams, talented as he is, will be hard-pressed to match him when he steps into the role later this month.

He's nearly as lucky in the rest of his cast. Joel Sandel is scathingly terrific as the thoroughly corrupt Major Ross, youthful, decrepit and even dead (he makes a stirringly campy, sinister light-show apparition). Kit Fordyce and Mike Cahill are strong both as brash young soldiers and their ghoulishly transformed later incarnations; Layton Payne and Matthew Harrison double admirably as miscellaneous natives and as Inspector Lestrade and the thick-witted Birdy Johnson, respectively. Amy Kristin Conant briefly triples as a walk-on leper, a diminutive window-wraith and a fainting Southern belle.

Mark Jenkins gamely supplies the fairly thankless role of ordinary-man Watson, devoted to Holmes although momentarily diverted by the undeniable charms of Miss St. Clair. As the duplicitous Irene, young Melody Green gives her best and most fully realized performance yet at MST, even pulling off an almost leaden curtain speech that would weigh on the tongue of many more experienced actors.

Indeed, the whole company has its apt way with this tried-and-true theatrical material, which may be a little wordier than necessary but is thus even more precious to those with a taste for it. This overdressed and overwrought vision of the dark side of the Victorian daydream emanates from a lost world, perhaps even a dead one. And yet, as the dead Major Ross sneeringly points out, all of the living are ruled by the thoughts and beliefs of dead men. All the more reason, I suppose, to have a look into Conan Doyle's magic mirror.


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