Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2005
I am not much of a mystery buff, but when I was about ten years old I confess to having fallen hard for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle was a great yarn-spinner, and Holmes, his greatest literary creation, has achieved almost mythic proportions – indeed there are some who claim that Sherlock Holmes was a real person.
Whether or not he believes that Holmes once trod the earth, Ed. Lange, playwright and artistic director of the New York State Theatre Institute, is obviously a big fan. Sherlock’s Legacy currently receiving its world premiere production at NYSTI, is his second play to feature the great detective. His first, Sherlock’s Secret Life, was staged at NYSTI in 1997, toured to Pennsylvania and Queens, New York, and was recorded as an Audie Award winning audiobook in 2000.
It is always tricky reviewing a mystery because it really isn’t at all kosher to reveal the plot. I will content myself with merely setting the stage. Lange has set his play in the Sussex cottage overlooking the English Channel to which Holmes (Robin Chadwick) retired to take up beekeeping. The year is 1920, and Holmes has just been knighted by HRH King George V. His old friend Dr. John Watson (Joel Aroeste) is paying him a visit, and they are being tended to by Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Chambers (Carole Edie Smith). Daria Blake (Stephanie La Vardera), a teenaged neighbor, is obviously smitten with the great detective and enjoys helping him tend to his hives. A stonemason named Quentin Miller (David Bunce) and his young apprentice Nevil Cornwell (Thomas Caska) are also on the grounds, having been commissioned by Holmes to craft a monument that accurately reflects his character.
When Mrs. Chambers discovers that her daughter is suffering a difficult labor bringing her first child into the world, Holmes insists that she go to be with her. Not wishing to leave her master and his companion alone, Mrs. Chambers calls on Gervaise Martingale (Mary Jane Hansen), a young woman newly arrived in the community who has made it known she is looking for work, to care for Holmes and Watson in her absence.
Holmes is in his golden years, and looking back over his life, is mourning the fact that he never married and had children. Miss Martingale offers him a startling opportunity to rectify that situation, after divulging a secret past life with which she requires Holmes’ assistance. Miss Martingale turns out not to be the only person harboring secrets, and the second act brings the story to a shocking and ultimately fairly satisfying conclusion.
This is a highly polished and professional production. NYSTI is an educational theatre in every sense of the word – it is housed on the campus of Russell Sage College, it produces shows aimed at school and family audiences along with accompanying educational programs, and it offers several opportunities for local high school students to learn about and get involved in the theatre. In the cast of Sherlock’s Legacy La Vardera and Caska are NYSTI student interns and both acquit themselves nicely.
Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder has done a beautiful job directing a fine cast. Robin Chadick, a seasoned pro who has had successful careers in his native New Zealand, in Great Britain, and now in America, is a charming and believable Holmes. I was less enamored of Joel Aroeste’s performance as Watson, but I think that I am being influenced more by Nigel Bruce’s performance in the 1940’s Sherlock Holmes films than by anything Conan Doyle may have written. Aroestes’s Watson is more vigorously involved in the sleuthing, and, in his later years, seems far more content and vital than Holmes.
David Bunce is asked to play two characters, really, and the metamorphosis is rather abrupt and unexpected, which is the fault of the script and not Bunce’s acting. He handles both personas nicely, even making some sense of the oddly placed humor in Act II that detracts from any suspense that might have been built.
Both Carole Edie Smith and Mary Jane Hansen are attractive and accomplished actresses. Again, Hansen is asked to portray a character with several sudden changes in attitude, accent, and persona, but she does so as gracefully as possible. Smith is warm and charming as the housekeeper who can’t quite manage that new-fangled telephone but manages to save the day in the end.
La Vardera is relentlessly perky, but she is supposed to be. Caska is stuck with the most poorly drawn of the seven characters, but he does nicely with what he is given. Both youngsters are completely professional. Having waited to read the actors’ bios in depth until after the show, I had guessed that they were college and not high school age. What a wonderful opportunity NYSTI has given them to learn and their fellow interns to learn and perform!
Sherlock’s Legacy is certainly a very enjoyable show. People I attended with, who were obviously more avid mystery buffs than I, seemed genuinely thrilled with the proceedings. Being the curmudgeonly critic I had some issues with Lange’s treatment of the mystery genre and of the character of Holmes. The first act seemed long on exposition and short on both action and suspense. At intermission the lobby didn’t buzz with all those tantalizing “whodunit” questions because nothing too questionable had actually occurred. The murder doesn’t happen until Act II and then it is a minor character who leaves the scene. I understand that we are seeing Holmes in his later years and that he is genuinely depressed and distracted by what he perceives as his failure to accomplish anything of significance during his life – nicely illustrated early in the play when he loses a chess game to Watson – but I was perplexed that sometimes his famous skills of deduction seemed as sharp as ever and sometimes they were dull to the point of stupidity. When Holmes first meets Gervaise Martingale, he immediately sees through her lies, but only as far as her next layer of deception. Then, after two days of “investigation”, he fails to even suspect that there is a truth beyond that which he desperately wants to believe. MY Sherlock Holmes would be smarter than that, even at 65+.
But I understand that the ultimate goal of Sherlock’s Legacy and NYSTI’s work is to introduce young people to the theatre and to the literature and history that inspires it, and in that regard it succeeds admirably. If seeing this play encourages kids (and adults) to read Arthur Conan Doyle, I say HOORAY! And I would recommend The Lost World after they finish with the Holmes tales.
I will once again gush over the technical pleasures of this production, most of which I attribute to the teamwork possible within a true resident theatre company. NYSTI will celebrate their 30th anniversary season next year, and many of the people involved in this production have been part of the company for most of that time. Duke Durfee has designed a splendid and complex set which represents both the interior and exterior of Holmes’ Sussex cottage. John McLain’s lighting takes the set from day to evening and from bright sunlight to the polarized light of a lowering thunderstorm. Robert Anton has designed attractive period costumes, including ominous looking Georgian beekeeping garb.
Will Severin has composed the original score and his company 100% Sound has provided the sound effects. While the latter were highly realistic and effective (I was actually convinced that bees were on the loose at one point), the music drove me crazy. Just when it was tooling along at an enjoyable level of spookiness this enormous blast of low sound that I assume emanated from a tuba or some reasonable facsimile came roaring along and assured you that something AWFUL was going to happen. As if you didn’t know – this is a mystery after all. And about three lines from the end of each scene a plaintive note was heard, signaling definitively that now it was the end of the scene and you should leap up now if you wanted to be first in line in the rest room. In a mystery, don’t you want an element of suspense rather than a flashing neon sign at the various conclusions?
Overall, my first visit to NYSTI was everything I had expected – a highly professional production of a wholesome family oriented show. Attending at a Saturday matinee I was pleased to see that the audience was primarily adults, not children, proving that NYSTI has built a loyal community following of all ages who count on them to provide affordable and professional entertainment. I look forward to seeing and learning more about this company during their 30th anniversary season.
The New York State Theatre Institute production of Sherlock’s Legacy runs through May 7 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. The company recommends this show for ages 11 and older, and I concur, although if you have an avid Holmes fan of 8 or 9 in your household I wouldn’t hestitate to take them. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005