Sunday, April 15, 2018

'Ear, 'ear: A fascinating 'adventure' at The Purple Rose Theatre

Ever since a teacher introduced me to the fascinating world of Sherlock Holmes way back in high school, I've been a major fan. So much so that the complete canon by creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sits proudly on my bookshelf to this day, having survived several purges of old books to make way for the new. Since then, I've devoured the "lost" manuscripts "edited" by Nicholas Meyer, bought comic book adaptations of the character's adventures, watched the movies, and - more recently - became a fan of the old radio series thanks to SiriusXM's Radio Classics channel.

So when chance encounters over the past year or so with local playwright (and a nominee for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Drama) David MacGregor revealed tantalizing tidbits regarding his then-forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear now at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea through May 26, I just knew it was a show I was not going to miss. (The fact that I'm a major fan of his earlier work made it an even easier decision!)

And so there I was on a recent Wednesday afternoon, standing in the theater's lobby with at least three bus loads of senior citizens and my platonic date, fellow critic Jenn McKee, when the doors to the theater opened and an audible gasp was heard coming from the patrons. No, no one tripped and fell. Rather, they were stunned by the remarkable, dazzling set by Bartley H. Bauer (likely among his best work, if not the best) that dominated their view. If it didn't break the budget I'd be surprised, as the interior of 221B Baker Street (where the entire play unfolds) is magnificent. (Should I ever build a house, I'll consider asking Bauer to design my living room with similar grandeur and opulence!)

Renting such an apartment mustn't have been cheap, which helps explain Dr. John Watson's concern at the opening of the play regarding their recent lack of revenue-generating income. (The two are roommates.) But voila! In walks the not-yet-famous Vincent van Gogh with a mystery to be solved: Where is the piece of his left ear that was cut off the night before during an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin?

No spoiler alerts are needed when I tell you the mystery gets solved at the end of the second act. (After all, that is what Holmes does: solves mysteries.) What I won't reveal, however, is most of what happens in between, since much of the show's appeal is simply sitting back and enjoying the roller coaster of (mostly) unlikely comings, goings, revelations and events that are almost too crazy or coincidental to be believed.

Yes, the show is that fun. And it all starts with the unusual approach MacGregor takes with his story.

Unlike tales written by Holmes' creator, MacGregor's isn't "told by" Watson. Rather, the Elusive Ear is a "behind the scenes" story in which we're watching an actual plot unfold before pen was put to paper, or filtered and sanitized by editor Watson. So rather than an adaptation of a Holmes adventure tweaked, enhanced or otherwise modified by the good Doctor, instead we're watching the "real" Holmes and Watson pursue a case in their native element.

That means Holmes' love of cocaine is addressed, for example, and his relationship with housekeeper Mrs. Hudson is fleshed out. (That's a pun, folks. See the show to find out why.) And additional information that may otherwise be excised by Watson is there for all to see.

It's an approach I found quite intriguing, as the master detective might say. And it allows the story, which is set in 1888, to go in a number of directions that I felt were both educational and creative (although picky Holmes aficionados might disagree with me about that).

Art and art history, for example, are important elements of the story, and I suspect many in the audience learned a thing or two they didn't know before. And theatergoers many not realize that women's suffrage became a national movement in Victorian England in the decade prior to MacGregor's story, hence its applicability to the plot. (There were moments, however, when the dialogue sounded more like it was ripped from newspaper headlines in 2018 rather than 130 years earlier.) And what can I say: Even though a cheesy, clunky sword fight was neither realistic nor integral to the plot, two women stripped to their corsets while duking it out (duchessing it out?) will always get the attention of an audience (especially its male members).

So too will excellent direction and performances. This production - MacGregor's fifth world premiere at The Purple Rose - is blessed with both.

Guy Sanville, whose specialty is guiding and nurturing new plays from the page to the stage, works his usual magic in bringing MacGregor's script to life. The entire show moves like clockwork, with all its moving parts working seamlessly together to create a slick and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon or evening at the theater.

Among the director's many notable skills is his ability to choose the perfect actor to play each role, and that's especially true of this particular cast. And each, in turn, works hard at creating a believable character within the world the playwright has placed them.

Both Mark Colson's Holmes and Paul Stroili's Watson are what I envision Sir Arthur had in mind when he created the characters: Colson is tall, lanky, and with a slightly hawkish nose that certainly defines the character, while Stroili fits the image of what you'd expect a one-time British Army medical officer to look like. Together, their camaraderie and repartee perfectly defines the relationship between these close friends and confidantes.

Tom Whalen, who's never met a character he couldn't master, fully captures the complexity of van Gogh, whose inner demons would get the best of him only two years after this story takes place. Sarab Kamoo - an actress I'll follow anywhere to catch her always brilliant work - is dynamic and sexy as Holmes' intellectual equal and love interest Irene Adler. And Caitlin Cavannaugh would give Catwoman a run for her money as the villainous and secretive Marie Chartier. (There were a few times when Cavannaugh's French accent was a little too thick, however.)

There's one character, though, who wanders into the story at the beginning of Act Two for no really good reason other than "why not" and to add some bon mots to the mix - and do you know what? In an afternoon or evening of coincidences and plot elements that make you scratch your head and wonder why, the addition of noted author Oscar Wilde to the story is a welcome addition, especially in the hands of longtime Purple Rose favorite Rusty Mewha. With a simple twirl of a hand or a flip of his hair, Mewha's Wilde is as charming and colorful and philosophical as you'd expect him to be - the ultimate party guest whether he was invited or not. And here, he's much appreciated.

As with all Purple Rose productions, all technical elements (lights by Noele Stollmack, props by Danna Segrest, costumes by Suzanne Young, sound by Brad Phillips) serve the show exceptionally  well.

The Bottom Line: While Holmes sticklers may gripe and grouse about certain aspects of the show, I find MacGregor's script to be respectful to the canon set forth by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while adding to it a bit of fun and humor that serve the characters and their history quite well. It's a world premiere well done by MacGregor, Sanville & Company!

For complete show detailsCLICK HERE!

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