Other than Shakespeare's era, is there any other literary period with more illustrative characters than the Victorian? Think of all those immortal fictions who have bored into our consciousness, people penned by Dickens, Barrie, and Carroll: Fagin, Scrooge, Miss Haversham, Pip, Little Nell, Peter Pan, Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts. But there's another successful author from that time whose sole creation has stood the test of time and who speaks louder with each passing generation.
That would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his one and only Sherlock Holmes. Although a most definite avatar of his era, the world's first private detective gets younger every decade. He's constantly remade by popular culture.
At the end of the 19th century, matinee idol William Gillette brought star quality to Holmes, as well as forever fixing him in our mind with deer stalker hat, meerschaum pipe, and the line Doyle never thought of, "Elementary, my dear fellow." The universal appeal of the movies gave Holmes his classic Basil Rathbone patrician profile, while the '70s drug culture emphasized his cocaine habit in the Seven Percent Solution; and, of course, contemporary audiences get a sexy benediction from Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern-day Holmes on PBS with soft psychological shortcomings and dreamy eyes.
Classical Theatre Company gives us a more classical interpretation of the intrepid Holmes in The Speckled Band, a stage adaptation by Timothy N. Evers of the eighth story in the collection that Doyle published as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). The book was an immediate sensation. Band is the prototype of the "locked room" mystery. Somebody's been murdered inside a room with no visible means of entry or exit. How was it done?
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There's a dastardly villain, a damsel in distress, and that confounded locked room. There's not much else, which makes this retelling a rather dull affair, no matter how much huffing and puffing the brutish Roylott (James Belcher) exhales, like an overworked Snidely Whiplash, or how many times poor Miss Helen (Amelia Fischer) asks for help and seems ready to swoon. There is a very sturdy Watson (Andrew Love) which I wish we'd have more of, while Sherlock's been given a boy friday, Billy (Ezra Serebrin), a cockney artful dodger, who is sadly misused in the play's bumpy progression. Perhaps it's more appropriate to say he's not misused, as not used at all. He appears in delicious disguise with Holmes as they arrive to investigate the creepy, ruined Stoke Place mansion, the place with that locked room, then inconveniently disappears. It's a terrible waste of a good original character. (Billy does not appear in the short story.)
John Johnston, Classical's artistic director, gives iconic Holmes an idiosyncratic veneer, dry and crisp as English toast. In a nifty precise touch, he rebuffs anyone getting too close, dodging artfully before the person can alight on his arm. He lounges on his divan, sweeping an errant lock of hair out of his face, or pounces on the hassock, assuming an eastern pose of contemplation. He's swift and sure, never wrong in his suppositions, and has solved the mystery scenes before he actually gets into the house. Of course, this leaves us blankly watching the outcome, never in doubt or suspense. We know from the get-go who's done it - and why. All that remains is how the murder was done. This is a big buildup for very little payoff.
Costumer Margaret Crowley designs a lovely Victorian valentine with plenty of mutton sleeves, bustles, and cabernet-colored smoking jackets; while set designer Claire A. Jac Jones depicts a chilly English manse and Holmes' untidy apartments with smoky, wood-paneled expertise. However, it takes forever to change the detailed set, which leaves us plenty of time to contemplate everything but the play at hand.
The Speckled Band continues through February 22 at Classical Theatre. Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at www.classicaltheatre.org or call 713-963-9665. $20.